1000 Words of Summer: How an Accountability Project Opened Up My Writing Life

Jami Attenberg

In 2018 my friend Anne Gisleson and I decided to write a thousand words a day, every day, for two weeks straight. We were enjoying a glass of wine early on a spring evening, talking about our work. Anne is a high school teacher and a writer who had recently published her first book, a memoir titled The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading (Little, Brown, 2017), and she was trying to finish a new nonfiction proposal. She also has two children and was closing in on the end of another school year, with all the pressures and challenges that went along with it. I had my seventh book in thirteen years to complete. We were sixteen months into the Trump presidency and had been writing through all the chaos of that time. I don’t know if we were burned-out, but we were really tired. We both needed a push to the other side.

We brainstormed for a bit. I remembered an actor friend who had recently done an exercise boot camp to get in shape for a movie. Every morning in a park in Los Angeles, for two weeks straight, he did an intense cardio workout in the southern California sun. It sounded grueling, but it had been effective. Two weeks seemed like a doable amount. A month felt like a job, and a week felt like not enough work would get done. “What if we did our own boot camp?” I asked Anne. 

Since I began writing books in earnest I have used a thousand words as a marker of a good day’s work. Two weeks would equal about two chapters for me. For Anne it would help her make a dent on the first draft of her proposal. But really what it would do is give us enough momentum to get going on our summer. It would direct our energy in one location—our projects. We would shut out the noise, slough off the distractions, and push through the bad vibes for a finite amount of time. “I’m in,” she said immediately. 

We picked a date that worked for her after the school year ended. Then I casually posted on social media that I was doing a two-week intensive writing push with an accountability partner. Within an hour hundreds of people had chimed in that they wanted to do it too. The response was so enthusiastic that I decided to set up a mailing list and send out e-mails to encourage people who signed up. I asked some writer friends to share words of wisdom with me for the e-mails. During that first year, writers like Lauren Groff, Andrew Sean Greer, and Meg Wolitzer all contributed inspirational words.

“Sometimes you get lucky, and your work stalks you like a tiger, and all you have to do is to stand there and let it leap on you,” Groff wrote in an especially encouraging message. “Most of the time, though, the work is shy. You have to show up day after day, in silence and patience and hope, and try your best, and it will only show a twitching nose or a whisker before fleeing away from your hand. You’ll be left a bunch of words that you know you’ll destroy the next day. Don’t worry. The fact that you show up is enough. Your faith and gentleness will coax that brilliant piece out someday, and when it arrives it will give back to you all the love that you’ve given to it.”

By the end of those first two weeks of my sending out e-mails, two thousand people had signed up, all of them writing with a renewed commitment to their craft, often posting their word count to social media every day and connecting with other writers in the process—all of us becoming one another’s accountability partners. Someone had suggested I call it “1000 Words of Summer,” a play on the 2009 movie title (500) Days of Summer. As with everything about this project, if it sounded like a good and simple solution, I ran with it. We adopted the #1000WordsOfSummer hashtag to track our work and support one another, and it grew from there.

The 1000 Words of Summer project takes place in the summertime to honor my teacher friends more than anything else. I didn’t choose the path of being an educator, but so many of my peers did, teaching in high schools and colleges or offering private instruction and even online courses. There are a lot of teachers out there working on developing the writers of tomorrow, offering their knowledge and time often in stressful working conditions and for very little pay, and in turn they get summers off to do more work, not always their own. All this time they spend taking care of the future of others. The least we can do is lend a little support and inspiration to them.

It is now five years later and there are more than 15,000 people from all over the world signed up for the annual 1000 Words of Summer project, with even more than that likely participating. Every year more wonderful authors contribute their thoughts on creativity, productivity, and inspiration. There is a popular Slack channel where people check in daily and post their word count for the day and root for one another’s success. And so much good has come out of it: Participants have written and sold books they have begun during the annual session. People have formed writers groups—and friendships—out of it. There are some folks who return year after year just to have that moment of connection. Even if what we write isn’t usable in the future, there’s something important about showing up for one another—and ourselves. It’s the definition of community and what our peers will do for us when it feels like we just can’t. How if we reach out to others admitting our challenges while also cheering one another on, we’re all capable of more than we expected.

While I find that writing itself is usually not easy, the choice to do the writing is. The choice, essentially, is of myself. Do I choose to create my own path? Do I choose to listen to my voice and express it to others in the best and most beautiful way I know how? Do I choose to shut out all the noise that is distracting me or telling me I can’t? Do I choose to create the opportunity to engage with the people in the world, entertain them, educate them, empathize with them, all through my words? I do. Writing is my North Star. And how much easier it is to see that North Star when there are other people pointing at it too.

Anne continues to be my accountability partner, and we keep each other motivated. Every year we have different energy levels. Last year she was on fire with a novel she had been writing for a while. She would blaze through her pages in the mornings and text me when she was done. I had just finished an intense round of copy edits on my memoir and was also recovering from a broken ankle—I was hobbled in so many ways. I barely made my word count every day while working on a new novel. But I saw a speeding ray of light coming from her direction. I hopped a ride on the back of it and rode it all the way to the end of the page. 

 

Jami Attenberg is the author of seven books of fiction, including The Middlesteins (Grand Central Publishing, 2012) and All Grown Up (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), as well as a memoir, I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home (Ecco, 2022).

A Decade of Women Who Submit

by

Thea Prieto

4.14.21

For the past decade an international community of women and nonbinary writers have been working to claim space for themselves in an industry historically dominated by men. Known as Women Who Submit (WWS), the group supports and empowers its members to submit their work in spite of publishing’s inequities. Their achievements have been extraordinary: This July, the organization celebrates its tenth year, with twenty-seven chapters across the United States and Mexico, more than one hundred fifty successful book and magazine publication credits by its members in 2020, and a devoted community of writers, editors, and publishers.

The first meeting of Women Who Submit took place in Los Angeles in 2011, following a discussion among writers and cofounders Alyss Dixson, Ashaki M. Jackson, and Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo about women’s representation in publishing. Dixson had worked with the organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, which—among many efforts to diversify literary publishing—compiles statistics regarding gender parity in the publishing industry. That year VIDA released the first of what would become an annual analysis of gender representation in widely distributed literary journals and periodicals. The results were striking: On average only 28 percent of the bylines in the thirteen publications that were the focus of the first study belonged to women. Representation at some publications was as low as 16 percent. Dixson and the other VIDA organizers reached out to the editors of some of the reviewed journals to ask about the editorial gatekeeping that created this inequity and how women and nonbinary writers might push back against it.

“The most common answer was that women don’t submit as often and don’t resubmit as aggressively as men,” says Bermejo. “Alyss, knowing that information, was brainstorming how we could make a difference, and she came up with this idea of a submission party.”

The submission parties, held regularly on Saturdays, began with a small group of women and nonbinary writers who met in family homes and at local restaurants. They encouraged one another to submit and resubmit their work, offering solidarity as they sent their writing off to editors. Soon the parties grew in size and began to take place at larger community spaces in Los Angeles and beyond. Today the meetings, which are free to attend and have migrated online during the pandemic, continue to offer opportunities for writers to share resources, clarify the submission process, and discuss their experiences.

“Every week we have a different facilitator,” says Bermejo. “It has really helped people within the organization understand that the organization isn’t about the leaders—it’s about the people in it and what we all bring to it. We always say that everyone in the organization is a resource. We’re against patriarchal models and hierarchy, so when we’re in a circle it’s never like the leaders are the only ones speaking or have the only answer. Everything is crowdsourced.”

In the past six years the original chapter of Women Who Submit found a more permanent home at the Exposition Park Regional Library in Central Los Angeles and expanded its free public programming to include ongoing workshops and a summer literary conference. A calendar alerts members to upcoming submission deadlines, and a WWS blog publishes members’ essays and interviews. The organization also administers the Ashaki M. Jackson No Barriers Grant, which offers funding to offset submission fees, as well as the Kit Reed Travel Fund for Black & Indigenous Women & Non-Binary Writers, designed to help writers attend a conference, workshop, or other event that will develop their craft. The organization’s first collection, Accolades: A Women Who Submit Anthology (Jamii Publishing, 2020), features forty-two creative works along with testimonies, success stories, and expressions of gratitude from members of Women Who Submit.

Accolades was released on March 4, 2020, a week before the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 crisis a pandemic. Three days later, the Saturday before schools and businesses were forced to close in Los Angeles and when Women Who Submit was scheduled to meet, the indefatigable group pivoted to online programming. “We actually went online from day one, which I think is unique,” says Bermejo. “It’s wild, but the year 2020 was a huge year of growth for us. We never canceled or rescheduled a thing, so everything we had planned for 2020 still happened; it’s just that everything moved online.”

Today Women Who Submit spans North America, with submission parties in sixteen U.S. states and two countries, coordinated by chapters director Ryane Nicole Granados and the chapter leads. The organization is still growing, and its second anthology, Gathering: Celebrating Ten Years, will be released in December. The book’s editorial team comprises both Women Who Submit leaders and members, to foster leadership and editing skills in the community.

“Thanks to Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo’s leadership and the initiative of our community members,” says managing coeditor Tisha Marie Reichle-Aguilera, “our programming has expanded in the past year despite our inability to gather in person. Gathering is a testament to that perseverance and our ability to continue gathering in the midst of global and personal traumas.”

This same tenacity has almost certainly contributed to a remarkable shift in representation numbers: The 2019 VIDA count estimates 50 percent of the bylines across thirty-nine reputable journals belong to women. While more change is urgently needed—just 1 percent of bylines belong to nonbinary writers, and racial inequities persist—this progress would be impossible without the persistence of writers like those of Women Who Submit. “As a new Los Angeles resident, Women Who Submit gave me the opportunity to grow relationships with other women and nonbinary people in the organization,” poet Muriel Leung writes in Accolades. “I am reminded always that my participation is never passive but one in which leadership is always encouraged. WWS is certainly a model for what we can lean into in the present.”  

 

Thea Prieto is the author of From the Caves, winner of the 2019 Red Hen Novella Award, forthcoming in August from Red Hen Press. Her website is theaprieto.com.

WWS members at a submission party in Los Angeles in 2014 (left); WWS members in San Antonio, Texas, (right) in early March 2020. (Credit: Los Angeles: Kenji Liu)

The Politics of Gatekeeping: On Reconsidering the Ethics of Blind Submissions

by

Joyce Chen

10.7.20

For many emerging writers, literary magazines are a way to get a foot in the door, to snag a byline, and to build a portfolio of work that might one day lead to a full manuscript, a chapbook, an artistic collaboration, or whatever form success might take for different poets and writers. Getting published in a lit mag is, for many, a first step toward becoming a Writer with a capital W, and the opportunity to share one’s work on a far-reaching platform is a coveted one. Recognizing the significance of their platforms, editors of literary magazines have long attempted to find a method of reading submissions that gives every writer a fair chance. Which is why many literary magazines have proudly adhered to the policy of reading submissions “blind”—that is, stripped of all identifying factors so that the writing itself can ostensibly stand on its own merit. 

At first glance the aim of the practice seems reasonable: to help curb the nepotism and bias that unfortunately plagues much of the industry (and most industries, let’s be honest). It’s framed as a way to acknowledge that editors are human and that their decisions can be swayed by identifying factors unrelated to the work itself—gender, celebrity, age, or race, for instance. It supposes that if an editor, say, were to read a mediocre piece by a renowned author and compare it with a stellar story by an up-and-coming writer, that there would be no unfair favoritism heaped upon the literary darling. Or if a particular white, male editor had an (un)conscious bias toward white, male writers from his home state, that he wouldn’t fill an issue of his lit mag with contributors who represented only those particular demographics. Blind submissions are supposed to help level a playing field that is inherently imbalanced.

But these days the practice feels anachronistic and actually feeds into the sort of gatekeeping that upholds harmful hierarchies of power. To wit, in many corners of the literary world, quality has long been judged through a largely white, male, cis, heteronormative lens, and the practice of reading submissions blind perpetuates that standard of excellence and allows it to go unchecked. Reading blind makes it all too easy for editors to discount or dismiss work that departs from this standard without scrutinizing who it serves. African American Vernacular English and cultural slang, for example, may not traditionally exist in more mainstream, white-helmed publications, but that should by no means preclude its use in contemporary lit mags. If a short story lacks the narrative arc that one is used to, is it failing as a piece, or is it simply subscribing to a different culture’s storytelling standards? Many non-Western storytellers unfurl narratives in intricate ways that don’t necessarily align with the more individualistic, first-person hero’s journey, but that should hardly be a reason to reject a piece. 

And how often do we discount work because it feels too “unpolished,” built around a solid core of a story but with a few loose ends that could benefit from the insightful feedback of an editor or even just an encouraging comment or two from a sharp-eyed colleague? Are we thinking about the hurdles that some writers face to even submit their work in the first place? Writers who haven’t had the opportunity to share their work with a supportive community, or to workshop a piece, or to go through several rounds of revisions, likely won’t present as polished an essay or poem as a more privileged writer. What could that essay or poem turn into with a little encouragement, a little editing—if only they get a shot? 

In other words, without any context about the writer themselves, how can we fully understand the import or shortcomings of a piece? Blind submissions do not actually have the same effect as, say, blind auditions, which suppose that the strength of a voice or an instrumental skill is more important than the identity of the singer or musician (also, the performed piece is not always an original piece). When it comes to writing, however, acknowledging the totality of the person behind the piece is arguably just as important as the piece itself.

What the practice of blind submissions ultimately fails to address is the bigger systemic problem that the publishing industry faces—merit still determined from a largely white, male, cis, heteronormative perspective—and it assumes, or lets us pretend, that writers and poets are creating in a vacuum absent their lived experiences off the page. It supposes that there is an objective scale of literary excellence by which a piece can be measured and that the “fairest” way to judge a writer’s work is by what’s on the page alone. Reading blind, in short, is the equivalent of claiming that one “doesn’t see color” when it comes to race; it’s a vacant statement that really only serves those who proclaim colorblindness and not those who are actually affected by racist microaggressions and policies. Literary excellence is, and will always be, subjective. There will never be one kind of “good” piece. To pretend otherwise would be a disservice to the art we create from our unique backgrounds and experiences. To pretend that the only standard for excellence is the one that has dominated our literary world for decades would be a veritable whitewashing of our pasts and a supposition that we all need to appease an imaginary, all-white audience.

This all-white, predominantly male audience has a historical precedence. The very first literary magazines were born in a different era. Nouvelles de la république des lettres, or News From the Republic of Letters, is widely regarded as the first literary journal; it was established in France in 1684 and primarily published book reviews. From there the medium, as it were, evolved tremendously—stateside, the North American Review was founded in Boston in 1815, publishing poetry, fiction, and essays on a bimonthly basis, with the intention of collating the work of some of America’s greatest writers and thinkers. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, and Flannery O’Connor were among its contributors. Countless literary journals were founded over the next few decades—some serving particular genres, like Poetry magazine, which published its first issue in 1912; others were linked to particular institutions, like the Virginia Quarterly Review, which was first published in 1925 at the request of the University of Virginia’s then president, E. A. Alderman. Almost all of the founding editors of these periodicals were white and male, as were most of the contributors in their early issues. Readers at the time were also likely to be of a certain economic and educational privilege, meaning that the parameters by which “excellence” was judged therefore catered to a narrow taste and readership. 

In more modern times, the list of lit mags has only continued to expand, with award-winning journals like Granta, ZYZZYVA, Ploughshares, the Iowa Review, and the Paris Review blossoming in the second half of the twentieth century. Online-only lit mags like the Rumpus, the Millions, and Guernica began to crop up in earnest in the early 2000s. Many contemporary journals have chosen to adopt the infrastructure and practices of print literary journals from years past—including solicitation, open calls, and the practice of reading submissions blind. But what inheriting this particular institutional tradition doesn’t take into account is just how blatantly exclusionary it actually is in the context of today’s ever-diversifying socioliterary landscape. (It is also worth noting here that some online journals, many helmed by BIPOC and/or queer editors, have actually opted to reject blind submissions from the get-go in the interest of explicitly holding space for marginalized writers.)

All of this matters because statistics show just how underrepresented writers on the margins still are in modern times, generations removed from the North American Review and in spite of a vastly more diverse readership and citizenship as compared with 1815. In 2017, an annual count by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts noted that of the forty surveyed publications, only seven could claim more than 10 percent of their published writers were Black. Only seven of the forty had more than 10 percent of their contributors identify as Asian. The highest rate of self-identified nonbinary writers in one publication, the Atlantic, was 9.1 percent. Needless to say, the contributor pool for many lit mags is far from representative of the nation’s racial, socioeconomic, gender, and sexual makeup; continuing to champion age-old practices in a new social context just hasn’t been working.

The good news, however, is that times are changing. This year’s historic civil rights movement—sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, as well as the police shooting of Jacob Blake—has revealed just how broken our systems really are and how anti-Blackness and discriminatory practices have seeped into just about every arena of our lives, both public and private. Law enforcement, of course, has come under fire, as have institutions of higher education, the health care system, art galleries, multimillion-dollar corporations, start-ups, media companies, and sports teams. Historical monuments glorifying the Confederacy have come toppling down, and calls for some policy reform are actually being met, however incrementally. The message is clear: Now is the time to crack open all the long-standing structures that have upheld unjust practices and to reevaluate what we keep and what we leave behind. 

Blind submissions are a part of what must be left behind.

But it’s not enough to simply discard the practice without pushing for all the other changes that need to happen in order to make the literary realm more sustainably equitable. Narrow-minded editors are not going to automatically read with more openness, humility, and generosity if they stop reading blind. And tokenization has become a major problem across all industries precisely because those in charge haven’t taken the time to do the hard, necessary work of interrogating how these changes need to happen. It is unhelpful to immediately swing the pendulum toward diversity without understanding the actual importance of inclusivity and accessibility, which is how tokenization happens in the first place. What this means, then, is that it’s worthwhile to look at not only what sort of gatekeeping is happening, but who is doing the gatekeeping in the first place.

Earlier this year, following the eruption of Black Lives Matter protests around the globe, a discussion emerged within a literary forum about how lit mags can ensure they are publishing diverse voices. One editor posed the dilemma that their particular publication was facing: The practice of reading submissions blind meant there was no way to determine whether or not editors were actually selecting submissions by BIPOC writers. Another editor quipped, in what was no doubt a well-meaning response, that sometimes “you can just tell” if a writer is BIPOC. As the executive director of the Seventh Wave, a lit mag that champions art in the space of social issues, and as a BIPOC writer myself, I was appalled—but not surprised—that someone had thought this was an acceptable way to judge submissions. “You can just tell” reeks of so many problematic assumptions, including what a BIPOC writer sounds like on the page, what we are expected and/or allowed to write about, and how we are othered in an industry that is still largely white-dominated—in its 2019 survey of the publishing industry, the book publisher Lee & Low found that 76 percent of all respondents and 85 percent of those in editorial positions identified as white. So the root, the real root, of the problem lies not just in whether submissions should be read blind, then, but in what those at the top refuse to, or simply cannot, see.

Change therefore needs to begin with the masthead. And, ultimately, with the scarcity mentality that pervades the literary world. Limited resources in the form of time, energy, attention, and—of course—money have dictated the structures and systems that make up the publishing world as we know it. It has contributed to unfair pay disparity for writers who are coming to the page from the margins; it is the reason mastheads continue to rely on venerated household names to attract readership and community. And this sense that there is not enough, that journals and publishers are just trying to survive in a competitive field, is used as a justification for why meaningful change to these imperfect systems is hard to come by even though the industry so desperately needs it. Because to reallocate these already scarce resources is to upend the delicate balance of power that the literary ecosystem has relied upon for generations.

The scarcity mentality also keeps so many literary magazines from imagining new realities wherein historically marginalized writers are not only given a seat at the table, but invited to lead within the organization itself. If there is to be a real movement toward industry-wide inclusivity that moves beyond just the aesthetics of good literary citizenship, then there needs to be a shift toward an abundance mentality that welcomes new perspectives and ways of leading and that considers different communities of readers who have a wide array of interests. Homogeneous gatekeepers will inevitably produce homogeneous publications, alienating the very voices that they claim they want to represent. As a writer of color, when I see calls for submissions for lit mags, one of the very first things I do is check the masthead and the latest issue of the publication in question: Is my work welcome there, and if it is, will it be used as a token of diversity or in any other unsavory way? Can I ensure that the cultural nuances that I bring up in my piece will be handled with care by editors, or will these details—and I—be exoticized? And will I be forced to justify or explain my culture and experiences in a way that so often assumes an all-white audience?

What feels clear is that there are so many decisions that have to be made within a lit mag before even getting to the point of submissions that a diverse team and board are not just nice to have, but paramount to the longevity of that publication. And by diverse I don’t mean a superficial sprinkling of marginalized staff members who aren’t given any say while the same long-standing editors make decisions at the top. I mean that there truly needs to be a wide range of writers and editors who represent a diversity of thought, of background, of experience, and of opinion, so that everything—how the call for submissions is framed, where the opportunity is posted, what kind of writing is welcomed—is channeled through a kaleidoscopic lens rather than a myopic one. Having an inclusive masthead will also help the team identify what sorts of barriers might exist that could prevent marginalized writers from submitting their work, whether that be a financial barrier (submission fees can really start to add up), a technical barrier (submission platforms are not always accessible and familiar to many), or a cultural barrier (here, I’m referring to the aforementioned glimpse at the masthead and publication to see whether or not my work would be welcomed there). If literary journals truly want to champion marginalized voices, after all, they’ll need a diverse pool of submissions from which to choose.

Shedding the practice of blind submissions can be daunting for lit mags that have operated the same way for years, if not decades. But in the times that we live in now, arguing that we need to continue upholding policies simply because “that’s the way it’s always been done” is not just unimaginative, it’s harmful. Blind submissions no longer serve the communities the literary industry claims to be built for—readers and writers from all walks of life. The practice instead denies writers the humanity and context that are so crucial to the texture of a piece, regardless of its final form and genre. An abundance mentality allows for this. Because though it is true that resources like money and time and effort are limited, the sustainability of literary magazines in today’s climate extends far beyond just issues of funding and deadlines. The viability of a publication depends upon how well it can understand its role in not just the literary community, but society at large, and then adapt to reflect the needs of its constituents, so to speak. 

Writing is and has always been about building empathy through story and character and word choice and rhythm, about connecting individuals through emotion and sentiment and experiences on the page. The reasons lit mags exist in the first place are manifold, but a core driving force behind those who publish them is, hopefully, to help elevate a writer’s voice to join a textured chorus of words and to pay homage to the literary lineages that came before. To build community and readership and encourage creatives to remember that they belong to a collective body of thought and that their individual stories really matter. 

Art does not exist in a vacuum, and it is so often the context of its creation that completes the piece. As poets and writers, we are constantly creating in reaction to the world around us and as a way to understand our place within it. Eliminating blind submissions opens the door specifically for folks who have traditionally been locked out, and, perhaps most important, it necessitates the sort of deep introspection and deconstruction of existing structures that any “good” literature demands in the first place. If we want to nurture the sort of literary ecosystem that really supports all of its members and welcomes new ones, then we have to understand the ways in which we are presently falling short of our intentions. Only then can we make the mindful changes now that will cause seismic shifts in the environment for future generations of writers.  

 

Joyce Chen is a writer, editor, and creator from Los Angeles who spent a decade in New York City before relocating back to the West Coast in fall 2017. She has covered entertainment and human interest stories for Rolling Stone, Refinery29, Architectural Digest, Paste magazine, the New York Daily News, and People, and her creative writing credits include Literary Hub, Narratively, Slant’d, and Barrelhouse. She’s a proud alum of the Voices of Our Nation Arts workshop and the Coaching Fellowship, as well as a former Hugo House fellow. She is the executive director of the Seventh Wave, a bicoastal arts and literary nonprofit. 

Two More Weeks to Submit! The Question of Extended Deadlines

by

Maya Popa

4.11.18

You’ve just finished polishing your story, essay, or poem. The contest deadline is just a few days away. You’ve reread the guidelines and double-checked your manuscript to make sure you’ve followed them perfectly. After paying the twenty-five-dollar entry fee, you click Submit and feel the familiar rush of accomplishment, nervousness, and hope. The long submission period will close; the even longer wait for results will begin.

But no sooner have you joined the magazine’s mailing list than you receive an e-mail from the editors: “Good news!” the message begins, followed by a gleeful announcement that the deadline has been extended. “Two more weeks to submit! So get those submissions in!” Perhaps you don’t share the editors’ enthusiasm. Maybe you even feel a little burned. You begin to second-guess your decision to not work on that other, longer story, the one you were excited about but likely would have taken until midnight of the (original) deadline day to get into shape. You followed every guideline; you played by the rules, as you always do. You did the work, submitted your best writing, and were prepared to accept your losses. In a moment of cynicism you wonder if the deadline was extended for that extra few hundred dollars in entry fees the magazine will surely receive, widening the applicant pool and, as a result, making it harder for you to win. “If the contest itself doesn’t stick to its own assigned deadline,” you think, “why should I?”

Admittedly, the above scenario had never occurred to me, a writer who oscillates between abject inattention and extension zeal. An extra week, you say? Great! Now I can definitely submit! Sometimes I’ll capitalize on the almost-missed opportunity. Most times, as the extended deadline comes and goes without my submission, I gather those ribbonless poems to submit to an open reading period instead. But to writer and visual artist David Colosi, the practice of deadline extensions is a thorny issue. In a letter to the editor, printed in the January/February 2018 issue of this magazine and appropriately titled “Rejecting Extensions,” Colosi asked a simple question: “Why do writing contests extend their deadlines?” Were too few submissions received? Was the quality or diversity of the submissions subpar? Did the publication fall short of its financial goals? Did the editors just want to make more money? With seemingly more and more contests extending deadlines, typically without explanation, writers like Colosi are left to speculate.    

Whatever the reason a sponsor might extend a deadline—whether for a contest, a reading period, or a fellowship—one can hardly imagine a room full of suited, greedy editors or administrators laughing raucously as the twenty-five-dollar fees roll in. The reality is that no one in their right mind goes into small-press publishing or nonprofit administration for financial gain; most publications operate on budgets incommensurate with the vital work they do to support writers, and nonprofits are, well, not profiting by serving a mission rather than a bottom line. Still, the lack of transparency that often accompanies deadline extensions can leave the motivations of a contest sponsor up to the writer’s imagination. “They wrote the rules, so they should stick to them,” wrote Colosi in his letter. “If I had any power in saying so, I would reject their extensions. If a publication fails to get enough submissions, money, or variety, it should accept its own failures.”

To better understand the rationale behind deadline extensions, I contacted more than a dozen editors and prize administrators whose contest deadlines were recently extended. My inbox was not exactly flooded with responses. After my initial requests, and a round of follow-up e-mails, I began to feel like a literary Typhoid Mary, deliberately ignored or politely turned away because of what I was told were busy editorial schedules. “I think from our perspective, a little mystery is not a bad thing,” added one editor who declined an interview.

“There are two sides to it,” says Ander Monson, editor and publisher of DIAGRAM, which sponsors a yearly chapbook contest. “One wants the contest to be robust so it makes sense financially for the press, which also makes it feasible to run and award the prize to the winner, and extending a deadline occasionally may help with that. The flip side is that it might be read by some as not fair to those who did the work to get their manuscripts in by the original deadline, at the expense of whatever other obligations in their lives. This is why DIAGRAM won’t accept late entries, for instance.”

Jen Benka, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, similarly remarks on the possible benefits and drawbacks of extensions and how better administrative practices might produce better outcomes. “In the past the Academy of American Poets has extended the submission deadlines of some of our prizes to ensure that as healthy a number of applications as possible were received,” she says. “We’ve stopped doing that, though, in fairness to the poets who worked hard to meet the original deadline posted. Instead we’ve learned to pay closer attention to the pace at which submissions come in—knowing that the vast majority almost always arrive on the last day—and to work harder to promote the upcoming deadline.”

In responding to Colosi’s letter, Poets & Writers Magazine editor in chief Kevin Larimer reminded readers that not all presses and magazines make money on contests (see “101 Free Contests” on page 48), and indeed, the cost of running a contest often extends far beyond paying winners to include the judges’ fees, readers’ fees, advertising, marketing and promotion, and so on.

Poets & Writers, Inc., the nonprofit organization that publishes this magazine, sponsors two annual writing contests that invite submissions: the Amy Award, for women poets under the age of thirty, and the Writers Exchange (WEX) Award, which offers emerging poets and fiction writers a trip to New York City to meet with publishing professionals and to give a reading. The deadlines for both contests, neither of which charges an entry fee, have been extended in the past. “When we’ve done this, it has been based on only the number of submissions received, not their quality,” says Poets & Writers executive director Elliot Figman, noting that submissions are not read until the application window is closed. “Particularly with the WEX Award, which each year invites writers from a different state to apply, reaching interested writers can sometimes be challenging. We may have to get more familiar with the chosen state’s literary community in order to identify which organizations or platforms can help us get the word out to eligible writers. Moreover, because most submissions come in really close to the deadline, it can be hard to gauge whether or not our outreach was effective until just before the announced deadline. If the number of applications is significantly lower than in prior years, we have sometimes wanted to do another round of outreach. We don’t have anything to gain by extending a deadline; rather, we want to be sure that as many eligible writers as possible have an opportunity to participate.”

Similarly, contests that attract a large international audience can face unexpected delays that require short deadline extensions. Donald Singer, cofounder of the U.K.–based Hippocrates Initiative for Poetry and Medicine (which sponsors a £1,000 poetry prize with a £7 entry fee) explains the challenges of managing an international competition. “We have entries from around the world—from thirty-seven countries this year alone—and from over sixty countries since the prize was launched. We have often extended our deadline for a few days. Our preferred method of submission is online, and many participants enter very close to the deadline; a short extension allows the minority of entrants who may have technical problems to resolve such issues. It also allows entrants from less developed countries—where infrastructure problems may lead to delays in making a planned entry—more opportunity to enter.”

Late last year the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, for the first time in the history of its residency program, extended the deadline for its fellowship competition, which has a $50 application fee, by two days. “Traditionally our deadline for writing fellowship applications is December 1,” says Sophia Starmack, the program’s writing coordinator. “This year December 1 fell on a Friday. We thought that it would help our applicants to have the cushion of the weekend to finish preparing their samples. Most emerging writers are juggling day jobs, gigging, classes, and multiple projects. We [thought we] could offer a few extra days when writers might have a little more breathing room to prepare or finalize their applications.”

Meanwhile, Ricardo Maldonado, a poet and translator and the managing director of the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in Manhattan, which sponsors the annual Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Contest (a prize that includes $500, publication, and a two-night residency at the Ace Hotel in New York City and has a $15 entry fee), will consider an extension of a day or two for writers who encounter a problem meeting the deadline and request extra time. Rather than extend the deadline, he instead allows for a small window of leniency at the end of each entry period. “I frequently juggle deadlines and other commitments,” Maldonado says. “I have to administer prizes with the understanding that applicants might seek an extension after having tried to meet requirements by a set time and are unable to because of extenuating circumstances. In general a deadline of Friday at 5 PM perhaps means Saturday evening or Monday.”

“As for my own experience as a writer,” he adds, “an extension means an extra chance to dot the i’s, an extra hour or so to think about what I want to say.”

The vast majority of writers will likely agree that the occasional extension is understandable, and excusable—and, indeed, most of the writers I spoke with while writing this story had, like me, never really considered the issue and had little or no problem with it; several assumed that writers who do take issue are, simply put, those who might be looking for someone to blame when they don’t win. But once extensions become a regular occurrence, a certain degree of skepticism is only natural. “The occasional deadline extension can be beneficial to all parties,” Monson says, “but it can also be an indication of an underlying issue. It’s okay to extend a deadline one year, but if you do it the next year, too, then something [may be] wrong structurally with your contest or the way it’s managed or publicized.”

Hunger Mountain, which like many publications relies on revenue from contests to cover operating expenses (paying writers, printing costs, and so on), extended the most recent deadline for its contest series in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and young adult and children’s writing, each charging a twenty-dollar entry fee—from March 1 to March 15. “We are a very small, dedicated staff,” says editor Miciah Gault. “We were late announcing our judges for the contest this year, so we thought it was only fair to extend the contest deadline once we’d finally announced those names. We have to leave enough time after announcing the judges to get a ton of entrants, so we know—and our readers know—that the winners really deserve that honor. This year, since the AWP conference fell in early March, we also felt that a March 1 deadline would be a missed opportunity for broadening our range of submissions.” Last year Hunger Mountain extended its contest deadline for the same reason, a late judges announcement, but only by one week. In both years the contest opened for entries on October 1 of the previous year, allowing for a five-month window for submissions.

“It’s not that we’re looking for any particular number of entries,” Gault says, “but if we see that the number is significantly lower than in previous years, we assume that we’ve done a poor job of promoting the prize, and we extend the deadline to redouble our efforts to promote.”

While it’s true that deadline extensions may benefit writers who missed the original entry period, for Colosi, who holds an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts and has received awards for his visual artwork, the contest sponsors are ultimately the ones who win. “A deadline sets the terms that everyone agrees to play by,” he says. “When editors extend it, the advantage is only theirs and, I suppose, that of the late submitters. The punctual submitters lose. Just as my overlooking a typo or forgetting the word count or using Arial instead of Times New Roman would be a sign that I wasn’t organized or didn’t read the directions, so too does the sponsor appear disorganized when they extend the deadline. They can disqualify me for my error, but I can’t disqualify them for changing the terms.”

Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), the organization responsible for creating the CLMP Code of Ethics in 2005, defends the practice of extending deadlines. “Deadlines are extended routinely to allow greater participation,” he says. “I don’t think it’s unethical. If a deadline was extended many times over a long period, then one might question the ethics. I think writers should see this as a benefit. If it seems unfair, then I have to question the writer. Why is it unfair? Because the pool is larger? One has to believe in one’s own work. Whoever else applied doesn’t matter. As long as a work is awarded, and as long as guidelines are held to, then there’s nothing unethical about extending a deadline. I would see it as a gift to those who missed the deadline.”

The question then is whether contest sponsors have an obligation to be more transparent about the possibility that a deadline may be extended. After all, CLMP’s Code of Ethics states, in part, “We believe that intent to act ethically, clarity of guidelines, and transparency of process form the foundation of an ethical contest.” Disclaimers of the sponsors’ right to extend deadlines, however, are notably absent from the majority of contests’ fine print. “Ideally a publisher might state as part of their guidelines that they reserve the right to extend the deadline,” says Lependorf. “Greater transparency should always be a goal of contest guidelines. Ultimately the greatest beneficiaries of a contest should be writers, and writers should be provided with clear and appropriate information to allow them to make a reasoned, informed decision about participating or not.”

In the end it’s unlikely such measures would change the minds of writers like Colosi. “The bottom line is that when a deadline is extended, it increases my chances of losing,” he says. “And my goal in following all of the requirements is to increase my chances of winning.” To contest sponsors considering a deadline extension, Colosi offers this advice: “Take what you have and find the magic in it. Fix the problem next year. Until then, embrace a new winner that you probably never would have seen in a bigger crowd.”

 

Editor’s note: Let us know what you think. Are deadline extensions just a natural part of writing contests and this issue much ado about nothing? Or should sponsors stick to the deadline, just as they ask entrants to do? At the very least, should sponsors be more transparent about their reasons for extending a deadline? Send an e-mail to editor@pw.org and share your opinion.

 

Maya Popa is a writer and teacher living in New York City. She is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Bees Have Been Canceled (New Michigan Press, 2017) and You Always Wished the Animals Would Leave (New Michigan Press, 2018). Her website is www.mayacpopa.com.

In a moment of cynicism you wonder if the deadline was extended for that extra few hundred dollars in entry fees the magazine will surely receive, widening the applicant pool and, as a result, making it harder for you to win.

Anatomy of Awards: March/April 2018

by

Staff

2.14.18

This issue’s Deadlines section lists a total of 118 contests sponsored by 78 organizations, offering a total of 130 opportunities for writers and translators to win an estimated $617,810 in prize money. This is roughly 26 percent more money than was offered a year ago, in the March/April 2017 issue, when this section listed 121 contests sponsored by 81 organizations, offering a total of 135 opportunities to win an estimated $489,910.

Tracking Submission Managers

by

Rachael Hanel

12.15.15

While writers once spent precious time and effort at the post office mailing poems and stories to journals and presses, over the past decade submission managers have helped make the process faster and easier. Nearly gone are the days of the SASE, of sorting through dozens of publishers’ submission guidelines and enduring long periods of radio silence; instead, writers can now simply log in to a submission manager and instantly check the status of their submissions and learn of upcoming deadlines. And the landscape continues to change: Stalwarts like Submittable and the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’ Submission Manager—both designed to help publishers and organizations manage the submissions they receive—have been running strong for years, while new platforms continue to emerge, shifting their models to focus more specifically on the needs of the modern writer.

One such platform is Literistic, a service launched last June that helps writers manage their submissions by identifying opportunities that match their publishing goals. Subscribers indicate their preferences—what genre they write, if compensation is a priority, whether they’re willing to pay reading fees—and receive a monthly e-mail that lists upcoming deadlines for literary journals, contests, grants, and fellowships tailored to those preferences. Literistic’s cofounders, Liam Sarsfield and Jessie Jones, both writers in Vancouver, hope to help fellow writers face what can seem like an intimidating number of opportunities. “In my own experience, just getting my head around the work I have to do is often difficult,” says Sarsfield. “Something as simple as being gently reminded to do it regularly is hugely valuable.”

Literistic is ad-free, but charges subscribers a few dollars per month or about forty dollars a year. Sarsfield hopes to make the customized monthly e-mail writers receive even more specific in the coming months. The service also offers a free “shortlist,” which provides forty to seventy non-customized monthly deadlines, each vetted by Sarsfield and Jones. Literistic follows the lead of Duotrope, which since 2005 has also helped writers find and keep track of places to submit, with a curated database of contests and journals, a calendar of upcoming deadlines, and a built-in submission tracker.

While Literistic is just getting started in the submission management market, one of the first such platforms, Tell It Slant, folded in August of last year. Established in 2009 by writer Jenn Scheck-Kahn, her husband, and a few friends, Tell It Slant managed the logistical and technical side of submissions for a variety of literary journals. One popular feature allowed writers to submit simultaneously; if one journal accepted a piece, that submission disappeared from the queues of other journals. A few years after the site’s launch, Scheck-Kahn and partners also launched Journal of the Month, a service that regularly mails out a different journal to subscribers throughout the year. The time commitment necessary to manage both projects, however, became too much. “We were managing two different businesses, and started to have children and families,” says Scheck-Kahn. At the same time, Submittable—founded in 2009 by three developers in Montana—started to take off, providing some of the same services to writers as Tell It Slant. Scheck-Kahn and crew reevaluated their priorities as literary advocates and decided to concentrate their energies on Journal of the Month. Since then, Submittable has gone on to become one of the leading submission managers, having been adopted by roughly nine thousand journals, presses, and organizations.

While submission managers and services like Literistic are certainly appealing, Scheck-Kahn is concerned that their growing ubiquity may risk excluding writers who lack access to the Internet, such as prison inmates, writers who live in remote regions, or those who simply choose not to use it. “I wonder if there’s a natural filter in place because we allow electronic submissions,” she says, noting that she encourages magazine editors to accept paper submissions in addition to electronic ones. (A few holdouts, such as the Paris Review and Zoetrope, still only accept submissions by postal mail.) In the end, though, Scheck-Kahn believes that facilitating the submission process for writers is ultimately a positive thing. “It’s great having better accountability,” she says. “Writers are able to get their work out there with fewer barriers.”

Rachael Hanel is the author of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

 

Return to the MFA: A Call for Systemic Change in the Literary Arts

by

Namrata Poddar

8.12.20

I remember a story I last workshopped in my MFA program. It’s a story about Soma, a call-center agent in India who has to ignore daily encounters with American racism. In my story’s climax she has to empathize with a white woman accusing Indians of being lazy and stealing American jobs; it’s the only way for Soma to retain her job and ensure her family’s survival. 

In workshop we followed the classic “Iowa model” of feedback through which each of my peers would comment on my story while I’d stay quiet and listen. My peers talked about the good or poor execution of craft in the story—sentences, style, use of details, and so forth—but no one commented directly on the story’s climactic moment or mentioned the word racism even though it was at the heart of my story. A white male peer sighed and said he had nothing to offer me as feedback; he couldn’t relate to my brown protagonist who goes through too much. Another peer nodded, a white woman. Soon thereafter one of the two workshop leaders stopped the peer discussion and reminded the group of its racial majority before steering it toward a more helpful conversation. It didn’t escape me then that the white man speaking up about race in my workshop was a Jewish writer married to a Black woman. 

This isn’t yet another story about how rough I had it in my MFA program as a brown immigrant woman. It is, instead, a story about a greater reality of MFA programs that begs for a reevaluation.

In recent years the U.S. literary world has established what a traditional MFA—seen as a white nationalist, Judeo-Christian, hetero-patriarchal space in its aesthetic ideology—does to Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC); women; LGBTQIA+ or immigrant writers; or those with disabilities. My experience, à propos, wasn’t much of an exception. Besides, contemporary American writers, mostly of color, have talked at length about this: Junot Díaz, David Mura, Joy Castro, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Matthew Salesses, and Bich Minh Nguyen, to name a few. In her incisive keynote at the 2016 AWP Annual Conference & Book Fair, poet Claudia Rankine reiterated how creative writing programs, with their white majority faculty and students, work to maintain whiteness as the workshop’s unspoken norm. “The insistence that white supremacy doesn’t continue to be our dominant frame takes work,” she said. “The belief that white lives are not political lives with political privilege and protections takes work. The failure to push back against systems that subjugate others takes work. The constant unwillingness or inability to retain diverse faculty takes work.” 

I chose to pursue creative writing after a doctoral and postdoctoral tenure in transnational literature as a non-Christian, non-passing brown woman who grew up in a “Third World” country that, thanks to a white colonial rule, went from being one of the world’s most prosperous economies to a poster child for global poverty, a country now flexing its own imperialist agenda in South Asia: India. On this personal and professional path, I learned something about power in a world of “high art,” including literature. By the time I became a U.S. citizen, I also learned the education that gave me a language to talk about systemic oppression was delivered in institutions built by Black labor on stolen Indigenous land. So before I talk more about the MFA, race, and power, I acknowledge my own privilege within the system—my cishet, able-bodied privilege; my educational privilege; the privilege of my lighter skin and brown ancestry that wasn’t subject to the same degree of white brutality as Black and Indigenous communities who survived a history of slavery, mass genocide, or forced displacement, and its aftermath in the United States. I acknowledge the privilege of my current citizenship in one of the world’s richest countries, too, an imperial power known in recent history to bomb people of my skin color elsewhere on the planet. 

I pause here to affirm strands of my intersectional identity—vast, complex, and ever-evolving as anyone else’s—and privilege because it is through a denial of one’s racial identity and position within the system, denial often practiced in favor of an allegedly universal humanity, that systems of oppression perpetuate their status quo; this includes a reign of white supremacy in the literary arts. A disclosure of one’s identity and privilege within white or non-Black communities of color seem to me even more important in this current historic moment, in our ongoing national and global conversations on race, since they’re rekindled—yet again—at the expense of countless Black lives. Lastly, a term like BIPOC—an important revision to POC—stands for a majority of our planet and encompasses a multitude of histories, contexts, traumas, as well as hierarchies within and across each ethno-racial subgroup. I’ll be using BIPOC hereafter in a broad way, yet I do so aware that any use of the acronym as a facile, monolithic opposition to white reenacts a history of erasure toward communities of color that a “woke” literati is trying to redress. 

It is time to rethink the MFA because the U.S. literary world seems to be on the precipice of change once again—in theory if not in practice. In June the Black Lives Matter movement spread across the United States to protest a long-standing history of racialized violence and police brutality against Black Americans, including the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks, to name a few in a very long list. The protests soon spread across the globe to reckon with other forms of systemic oppression in other historical contexts—colorism, casteism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, or heteronormativity as they often intersect with racism; the social inequalities within a global landscape were further exacerbated and unmasked by COVID-19. As if to catch up with a national and global movement of resistance, the U.S. literary world professed reawakening to its white supremacist realities. Arts and cultural organizations, colleges and universities, literary magazines, and publishing houses sent out statements of solidarity with Black Americans, pledging to fight racism and systemic oppression at large. On June 3, 2020, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs stated its intent “to amplify Black voices” and its mission “to champion diversity” in the field of creative writing. In the next few days the president and board chair of the Poetry Foundation both resigned after writers criticized the organization for its measly response to Black Lives Matter protests. Less than a week later, more than half of the National Book Critics Circle’s twenty-four board members, which included six people of color, resigned over internal conflicts about racism, privacy concerns, and political correctness. If a fiercely defended ideal of literature as the realm of “the personal” became “political” for a white liberal world in November 2016, the same coterie seemed to march toward wokeness in June 2020, talking art and social justice with a fervor it used for years to divorce the two. 

I return to the MFA within this scene because it’s a key incubator for current citizens of the U.S. literary world, including winners of several prestigious awards. The MFA is the degree writers use as their calling card for the publishing world; it’s what gatekeepers like editors and agents often consider when reading a piece of writing from the slush pile; it’s what you need to get a teaching job in the academy; it’s what can give you time to work on your craft and book. Elif Batuman echoes the degree’s status in her controversial essay “Get a Real Degree,” published in 2010 in the London Review of Books, calling the MFA “the single most determining influence on postwar American literary production.” Richard Jean So and Andrew Piper further show how the degree is a big business. They reported in 2016 for the Atlantic that there are more than 350 graduate creative writing programs in the United States, which together bring in more than $200 million a year in revenue. In his 2017 New York Times piece “Viet Thanh Nguyen Reveals How Writers’ Workshops Can Be Hostile,” Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen further stated how the U.S. writing workshop—the MFA’s key component—is a form of empire spreading globally to legitimize “good” storytelling, “an object lesson in how power propagates and conceals itself.” 

In short, the MFA is so interlocked with how many contemporary writers publish and earn a living in the United States and who gatekeepers herald as the next rising star that it needs to be put on the spot if the literary world is serious about examining and redistributing institutional power. 

I quit an academic path in literary criticism for a long-deferred dream of creative writing once I could afford the choice; unlike MFAs most PhD programs offer their students full funding. Although my PhD gave me a rigorous training in reading power within the world of stories—a skill I owe first to my Black woman mentor—I chose an MFA because I wanted to break up with academic English and write for a broader audience. I was eager to learn what a traditional MFA is best known to sell—craft, even though I knew it’s a tradition rooted in Eurocentrism, like most of “canonical” literature and literary criticism. When it comes to craft I remain indebted to my MFA mentors for making me a better writer, including the rare privilege I had to work with a superb brown woman writer, a visiting faculty member. My MFA mentors attuned me better to language; they shared valuable insights on scene-building and story structure, steered me toward reading intuitively and trusting the organic unfolding of a story—foundational lessons on any writer’s path. Most of all it’s my MFA community across the racial spectrum who cheered me on the path of becoming a writer when my brown American family with a working-class background belittled my creative aspirations, perceiving the latter as lazy or pretentious life choices.

My intention here isn’t to dismiss the lessons on craft I learned throughout my MFA from which I undeniably grew. But I share the experience of workshopping my story about Soma now—as the U.S. literati continues to confront the intersection of art and power—because what struck me wasn’t the palpable discomfort a conversation on race generates within white institutional spaces, something I knew well from my long tenure in the Western academy. What struck me about that workshop moment in one of our country’s most elite writing programs was the degree of silence on racism even when it was at the core of my story. As we talked about the execution of craft in my story, I don’t remember craft-based questions specifically on the story’s climax coming up in my workshop’s peer discussion. Was my depiction of the scene convincing when Soma deals with her racist client? Was the point of view effective? What about dialogue between characters in that charged encounter? When I processed my experience while thinking through story revisions, the chasm separating two siblings of the literary arts became clear to me, or rather, the bitterly divorced couple of most English departments in the American academy—“literature” versus “creative writing.” 

An ideological split in an American literary world struck me because, as shared earlier, I came to the MFA after a long tenure in studying and teaching contemporary multiethnic literature in which my mentors and peers—across the racial spectrum—could have a fruitful conversation on systemic oppression that included racism and xenophobia within a world of stories. Moreover, at UCLA, where I was teaching while pursuing my MFA, my undergraduate students across the racial spectrum seemed more adept at talking about a story’s relationship to social justice than most of my white MFA community ranging in age from twenties to eighties. 

My point here isn’t to idealize literature programs over MFA programs, as if critical thinking and creative writing are mutually exclusive endeavors, except that they do seem mutually exclusive in U.S. workshop culture. Neither is my point to gloss over the daily encounters with institutional racism I experienced as a literature student or faculty member of color. White allyship, however genuine, isn’t free of white privilege or white fragility, and this includes a “woke” world of arts and humanities in the U.S. academy, something scholars of color constantly write about and must navigate. That said, the stark silence over race that I encountered in my workshop has a lot to do with the workshop’s history itself, I believe, in addition to its ethno-racial demography.  

Viet Thanh Nguyen cites Eric Bennett’s Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War (University of Iowa Press, 2015) to remind us how the traditional U.S. writing workshop originates from the country’s midcentury fear of Communism, a historic moment that promoted creative writing “as a defense of the individual and his humanistic expression.” This freedom of self-expression is perpetuated in most MFAs through a fetishization of craft, often associated with a toolbox of skills, with, as Nguyen says, “physical (not intellectual) labor—and masculinity.” Here individual freedom of expression is defended at the detriment of collective responsibility; it’s defended in order to dismiss politics in general and the so-called “identity politics” of BIPOC in particular. Elif Batuman argues that, due to a pedestalization of craft, the MFA is trapped in time and emblematic of a writing culture “produced in a knowledge vacuum” where the “right” use of adverbs, adjectives, and individual perspectives are considered way more important to a writer’s formation than an understanding of their relationship to the world and history. 

To me what’s truly dangerous about this ahistorical, apolitical ideology and pedagogy of storytelling is that it exempts white writers from confronting whiteness in any way, including their recent racial history of colonizing 90 percent of the planet’s land surface through the power of white storytelling speaking for the other—an amnesia in favor of a white literary world, an omnipotent memory for BIPOC dealing with the aftermath of this amnesia on a daily basis. It is this battle over amnesia versus memory that reignites, it seems to me, the tired debate on cultural appropriation and freedom of self-expression, dividing the literary world every few months into two implacable teams: white versus BIPOC. Think white writers publishing under an Asian pseudonym to benefit from “diversity,” or donning a sombrero to promote artistic freedom, or calling sensitivity readers “a cottage industry”; think publishers celebrating the rigging of a white author’s best-seller on brown undocumented migration over party decor of barbed wire evoking the U.S.–Mexico border—to reference a few in a long list of recent literary wars. 

Thankfully there’s more to our U.S. literary family than the grim picture I paint above. During the midcentury rise of the writing workshop, another history marked a turning point in the reading of literature, here in the United States. The civil rights movement, the decolonization of Asian and African countries, and the student activism of the sixties led to the establishment of area, ethnic, and postcolonial studies, followed soon by LGBTQIA+ and disability studies in the American academy, all of which challenged Eurocentric assumptions in the production and consumption of knowledge, especially in the humanities and the social sciences. These newer disciplines brought an overdue comparative perspective that decentered the able-bodied, straight white male or Western “narrator” who spoke as the unquestioned norm in most forms of Knowledge including Literature (emphasis on capital K and L). Many of my pre-MFA peers and undergraduate students across the racial spectrum learned how to read and understand stories within this interdisciplinary legacy, one that isn’t devoid of Eurocentrism yet offers a necessary shift in point of view—that revered darling of lessons in craft.

In June, when my inbox was inundated with solidarity statements by literary institutions pledging to break the silence on race and systemic oppression, I received another e-mail informing me that Soma’s story was going into print in the Kenyon Review. Staring at my mailbox and recalling my workshop experience, I wondered just how will the administrators, faculty, and students of the traditional MFA hereafter confront their legacy of silence, if not their proactive resistance to questions of race and social justice? This, especially when core—not visiting or adjunct—Black, Indigenous, and other faculty and students of color continue to be an obvious minority in most MFA programs, where chairs or directors, unlike those of literature departments, continue to be overwhelmingly white. What would action toward systemic change in the MFA—beyond statements and diversity committees—actually look like? 

Here I could list concrete ways to dethrone white nationalism in the literary arts, as if BIPOC across the world haven’t been sharing this labor since the planet’s decolonization—literal if not figurative—in the mid-twentieth century. Historicize, contextualize, decolonize art, de-provincialize the workshop, embrace interdisciplinarity in teaching. And, of course, in the obvious drill of immediate “solutions” toward structural change, I could recycle the persistent BIPOC plea to add color: color in the student population and the core faculty of MFA programs, none of whom need a PhD to write or teach about a lived experience of marginalization; color in leadership and gatekeeping positions at every level of the literary world, including publishing, literary award juries, editorial mastheads, and academic departments.

The question here isn’t what the “solutions” are for ending structural inequality. Although change requires all of us to actively do our part—in learning, unlearning, and addressing our own blind spots, in taking action every day within our sphere of influence—key questions at the heart of systemic change are those of power: Who holds power in major leadership or gatekeeping positions? Would they be willing to share it in a fair—not tokenist—way? And if they’ve held it for too long, would they consider relinquishing it, or redistributing it in an effective way?

As for the traditional MFA, any revised pedagogical focus on BIPOC or “diverse” points of view will falter yet again if the institution refuses to confront its racial pandemic—a long-standing history of whiteness masquerading as the essence of art, transcendence, humanity, universality, or, the most American of ideals, freedom. 

 

Namrata Poddar writes fiction and nonfiction and serves as interviews editor for Kweli, where she curates the series Race, Power, and Storytelling. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Literary Hub, the Kenyon Review, Transition, Electric Literature, VIDA Review, The Best Asian Short Stories 2019, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in French Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, an MFA in fiction from Bennington College, and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Transnational Cultures from UCLA. Find her on Twitter, @poddar_namrata, and on Instagram, @writerpoddar.

The Power of the PERIPLUS Collective

by

Jennifer De Leon

4.14.21

When Ferguson Williams, a fiction writer from Socastee, South Carolina, received an e-mail informing her she had been accepted to PERIPLUS, a new mentorship collective serving BIPOC writers across the United States, she could hardly believe it. “I kept reading it in my head like an NBA announcer would, complete with the microphone echo and the cheering crowd,” she says. Williams is one of fifty-five PERIPLUS fellows chosen for the collective’s inaugural class of mentees from more than 1,400 applicants. Through the collective, each fellow has been paired with an established writer working in the literary arts or in journalism for a year of mentorship. While some of the collective’s mentors also teach professionally, all mentors volunteer their time to demystify and democratize the world of writing and publishing for BIPOC writers.

“It started small,” says Libby Flores, currently the director of audience engagement and digital projects at BOMB magazine and one of the inaugural mentors in PERIPLUS. “Writer Vauhini Vara e-mailed other writers—R. O. Kwon, Esmé Weijun Wang, and Rachel Khong. She asked if there was a one-year mentorship project for BIPOC writers where emerging writers were paired with more established authors in the field.” The answer was no. And so more e-mails circulated. “It became a collective with many members really quickly,” says Vara. Soon they decided on a mission for the collective—to provide fellows of all ages with mentoring and guidance so that they can achieve their professional and artistic goals as writers—and a vision: to make the publishing industry more welcoming and accessible to BIPOC writers, who have been historically excluded from it. Vara announced the call for applications on Twitter. “At the end of our inaugural year,” Flores says, “we hope that writers, who felt isolated and not seen, feel fostered going into 2022—not just with what they have accomplished on the page, but also in the esteem they have as BIPOC writers in the world.” 

While there may be no lack of aspiring authors who are hungry for advice, the writing and publishing world often needs more people willing to share it, or a structure through which they can offer that expertise. As fellow Jonny Teklit, who will be mentored by poet Tiana Clark, author of I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), says, “I come to this fellowship an eager student.” He, along with the other fellows, will converse with their mentors for a half hour every other month about topics such as daily writing routines, craft concerns, paths to publication, graduate school, and finances. A statement from the collective says that most mentors “have also committed to reading and giving feedback on mentees’ work.” 

“We’re a collective of writers who want to, and are able to, make ourselves available. We like the idea of a low-key, informal, mutual-aid-style project that exists outside of institutions,” says Flores. Access, mutual support, and transparency are among the collective’s core values. As such, some mentors are also organizing events and resources for all mentees. Nicole Chung, author of All You Can Ever Know (Catapult, 2018), for instance, is planning a panel for later this year during which book editors will share advice with fellows. 

While the collective aims to serve BIPOC writers, not all the mentors identify this way. Flores says that BIPOC writers are often the ones to carry the emotional labor of advocating for better representation. “It felt powerful to include white writers who we knew to be allies,” she says. As mentor Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir (Flatiron Books, 2017), says, “The system is set up with gatekeepers—so let’s help pry open those gates. As a queer, and now out as trans, person, the idea that I could help connect other queer writers with resources was profoundly important to me. Publishing is still predominantly white, predominantly cis, and predominantly heterosexual. Let’s change that.”

Fellow Amaris Castillo’s goals include pushing past insecurities and writing bravely. She wants to produce short stories she is proud of and to make progress on the novel of her dreams. Castillo, who will be working with Natalia Sylvester—whose most recent novel, Running, was published last year by Clarion Books—is grateful for mentors so consciously lending their support to rising BIPOC writers. “It’s generous of the mentors to give of their time and share lessons learned,” says Castillo, “especially those embedded in a publishing industry where there is still so much work to be done when it comes to diversity.”

The deadline for the 2021 program has passed, but PERIPLUS will accept applications for its 2022 cohort in late 2021. Those looking for more information can e-mail peripluscollective@gmail.com

The collective hopes to make lasting change in the industry for BIPOC writers, as its name evokes: The word periplus means to voyage, to circumnavigate. It also refers to a log that captains used to chart their way across harrowing waters in order to aid future sailors’ navigation. In many ways, Flores says, that is the essence of mentorship: “It is our way of showing new writers the record of our voyages in the hopes that they divine some meaning for their own journeys.”    

 

Jennifer De Leon is the author of Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From (Simon & Schuster, 2020) and White Space: Essays on Culture, Race, & Writing (University of Massachusetts Press, 2021), winner of the Juniper Prize. Visit her at jenniferdeleonauthor.com.

From left: Amaris Castillo, Ferguson Williams, and Jonny Teklit. (Credit: Teklit: Deb Grove)

Diversity Efforts Lead to Salary Hikes

by

Priscilla Wu

2.17.21

Big Five publishers Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster, as well as several independent presses, recently committed to raising entry-level salaries to between $40,000 and $45,000 at the end of 2020 or in 2021. Intended to make opportunities in publishing more financially accessible to BIPOC and other historically excluded professionals, this latest attempt to reckon with publishing’s whiteness was spurred by the country’s outrage at the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and many other Black Americans at the hands of the police and the ensuing push to interrogate racism and anti-Blackness at a systemic level, including within the publishing industry, this past summer. 

Entry-level workers, often assistants in editorial, marketing, design, sales, production, and other departments, do the essential work of reviewing book proposals, creating sales and marketing materials, proofing manuscripts, and much more. Industry norms often perpetuate low pay and long hours, which can include unpaid overtime. Low entry-level salaries ranging from $30,000 to $36,000 have been cited as one of the various barriers to diversifying publishing—many who aspire to work in publishing are unable to live on low wages in New York City or other expensive industry hubs with the burden of student loan debt and without supplemental support from family. “Higher starting salaries are an important step in attracting and retaining employees of color and from less-privileged backgrounds,” says an executive at a large publisher that has committed to an increase.

A mid-level professional at a small publisher who identifies as BIPOC cites the industry’s low wages as a significant barrier to entering and staying in the industry. “If I had not been with my partner, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I would not have survived beyond my first publishing job. I wouldn’t have been able to afford it with school loans. It’s what a lot of people of color in the industry have to deal with, because many of us—I don’t want to speak for all of us—don’t have generational wealth to fall back on.” 

While there is excitement about the raises, the sense prevails that this wage increase, though long fought for internally, is only a start, given the industry’s struggle to keep pace with continually rising costs of living. “It’s helpful, but now we need more, just because it’s taken so long to get to this point,” says Foyinsi Adegbonmire, who works as an editorial assistant at an imprint of Macmillan, which raised its starting salary by $7,000 from $35,000 this past December. “It’s great, but because there’s [a high] cost of living in New York, there are student loans to pay, it’s hard to fully breathe a sigh of relief,” she says. 

Industry professionals also want to see salary adjustments outside of the entry-level tier. Although HarperCollins and Penguin Random House have committed to raises at other levels, other publishers have yet to follow suit with public announcements of widespread adjustments. The mid-level professional who relied on her partner’s support to stay in the industry early on—and whose company has yet to announce any formal wage bumps—says that this wage suppression has had lasting effects on her plans for her future, including saving for retirement and purchasing a home, and has seen it affect her peers’ plans for having children or even owning a pet. Even ten years into her career, she still considers leaving publishing. “I feel very jaded, because on the one hand, I get to do something I love, but on the other hand, I don’t even love it anymore, because I can’t afford to do it,” she says. 

Professionals say it is difficult to navigate career advancement, particularly when seeking promotions, because of a lack of transparency about salary structure and how pay determinations are made. “For true equity, to get there at some point, we need full transparency,” says Adegbonmire. When it comes to asking for salary increases, the mid-level professional says the people in power at her press, often older white women, can lack understanding of or empathy for this situation. “Their response to mid-level employees who hope to be where they are someday is, ‘Well, you know, people don’t get into publishing for the money. It’s about the books.’”

Jennifer Baker, who has been in the industry since 2003 and is a managing editor at Random House Children’s Books and the host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, agrees. “There’s such a gap between understanding what it is like at an entry-level place and even beyond that. But I just never forget what it was like to be an assistant. And I’ve met so many people, who, once they get to a position, they forget,” she says. 

Living wages are only one piece of cohesive diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Where publishers do outreach for open positions, their efforts to build inclusive management and company culture and the availability of mentorship and advancement opportunities all play a part in ensuring BIPOC employees are able to bring their talents to publishers and thrive alongside their white counterparts. Black women in particular have cited lack of mentorship, representation in leadership, accountability for racism in the workplace, and an unwillingness from executives to provide support for books from Black authors as other reasons the industry remains a difficult place for them to succeed.

“I think pay is only part of the problem. The racist things that happen, the racist books that get published and printed, the pay gaps between white authors and illustrators versus authors and illustrators of color, all of that is incredibly draining. Even if they get more Black people into the industry, those people still aren’t going to stay. They’re going to be burnt out—there’s going to be emotional burnout after a certain amount of time because they won’t have the support network in place,” says the mid-level professional.

While professionals of color are hopeful about the wage increases as one step toward addressing these various issues in their workplaces, they remain cautious. “I just want a comfortable working environment and to be respected,” says Baker, who identifies as Black. However, she adds, “If we’re still going to have to tiptoe around white privilege, white supremacy, none of this is going to change. Ever. It’s just going to look different. But it’s going to be the same.”

Executives at several large publishers cite willingness to continue remote work post-pandemic, trainings, and ongoing assessments of demographics and pay as pieces of the work that will continue to address issues of DEI, in addition to top-level appointments of people of color. But the culture of isolation can be hard to shake, particularly at small publishers without much diversity to begin with, says the mid-level professional. 

The longevity of this wave of efforts remains in question. “I’m cautiously optimistic. So much of what happened in 2020 has been reactionary. Being reactionary isn’t sustainable,” says Baker. With the industry’s history of variable interest in Black issues, she wonders, “So what’s different this time? We’ll see.”   

 

Priscilla Wu is a writer, editor, and communications professional living in Portland, Oregon.

A Letter From a Black Woman in Publishing on the Industry’s Cruel, Hypocritical Insistence That Words Matter

by

Mariah Stovall

6.8.20

Dear White people in publishing,

 

In the publishing industry, we deal in words. We know, perhaps more than anyone, that words matter and the pen is mightier than the sword. But ask yourselves this: Has your love of words become an excuse for complacency?

Right now, many businesses in the industry are rushing to make vague statements in solidarity with Black Americans. They are declaring that Black lives matter. They are promising to do better as gatekeepers and arbiters of culture. I believe there is plenty of sincerity behind these statements. I believe there is opportunism and a fear of being seen as complicit behind them as well.  

Why should Black people like me believe these are more than empty words, when many of these statements assume an entirely White audience and are focused on propping up businesses’ past work with Black people?

Publishing is no different from the other predominantly White liberal institutions in which I’ve spent my entire life. I am all too familiar with White liberal racism, with its unconscious bias and reluctance or refusal to admit fault and be self-critical. This too is racism. It is deeply entrenched in coded language and packaged in a message of self-proclaimed allyship and false empathy. Sticks and stones and state-sanctioned harassment, systemic discrimination, and murder may break Black bones and words also hurt us.

The publishing industry can do better in the future, but nothing can negate its past failures. Think of all the stories that have already been silenced because of passive negligence and willful discrimination. Think of all people who were already pushed to their breaking points and left the industry. Think of all the people who were so alienated that they never even tried to get into publishing in the first place. By all means, keep promoting the Black people you work with and have worked with in the past, but stop congratulating yourselves for it.

This is a call to hire more Black people in every department across every part of the industry, but editorial and acquisitional roles are particularly important to me. A Black marketer, a Black publicist, a Black designer, a Black salesperson, a Black reviewer or a Black bookseller will never have the opportunity to work on a wide array of Black books if White agents, editors, editorial directors, and editors in chief refuse to treat Black submissions with the same open-mindedness as White submissions.

Why are Black stories riskier bets than White stories? Why is there a tacit assumption that there can only be so many Black stories in the marketplace at one time? Look to your peers in other fields. No one is limiting the number of Black artists at the top of the Billboard charts.

I know that you know Black people are extraordinary artists across all disciplines, and that our work resonates with you, because you’ve been selectively borrowing, stealing, and appropriating our culture for years, and when you do acknowledge us, you often fail to adequately compensate us. 

We’ve had the Lee & Low reports for years. We’ve had diversity panels for years. Since my first internship in 2013, I’ve been told that change needs time to trickle from the ranks of exploited and underpaid interns and assistants to the senior and executive levels. Asking individuals with very little power, job security, and in-company support to lead the charge is crazy-making. The reason it feels so impossible for us is because it is. But I’ve kept my head down and accepted this absurd premise because it was effectively my only option.

I am tired of keeping my mouth shut when I encounter racism in publishing, in the hope that someday I will be promoted to a position in which I can do something about it without fear of retaliation, or being told I’m overreacting, imagining things, misunderstanding, or not giving a racist the benefit of the doubt. I am tired of thanking White people for doing the bare minimum. I do not want to be able to name every Black editor and every Black agent. I don’t want to be condescendingly deemed exceptional just because I exist.

I often wonder if I would be where I am today if I had darker skin and curlier hair, if I were naturally loud and outgoing rather than soft-spoken and reserved, if I took up more physical space instead of being petite. I don’t, for a second, doubt my own abilities; I never forget that American meritocracy is a myth and American racism is alive and well, thanks to the masterful ways in which our leaders have woven it, often invisibly, into every aspect of this country—from our legislation to our art—for hundreds of years.

To all the self-proclaimed allies reading this, especially those of you with hiring power, or the power to acquire, or the power to allocate marketing dollars, here’s another cliché for you: Actions speak louder than words.

I demand that those who hold the most power and benefit from the most privilege make changes that are in direct proportion to that power and those privileges. Stop leaning on your Black employees and writers to fix this for you. If you can’t bear the brunt of the responsibility, maybe it’s time to reevaluate your ability to effectively lead a company. Don’t make empty gestures. Don’t make promises you can’t keep because you aren’t willing to do the work.

Right now, Black people have your attention. That is not an excuse to forget about the Latinx, Asian, Native/Indigenous, queer, disabled, rural/non-coastal, and working- and middle-class people of the world (and do not forget that these identities are not mutually exclusive, and can also coexist with Whiteness).

I have no faith that meaningful, measurable, permanent change is on the horizon. Prove me wrong. And if you do, don’t expect me to thank you.

 

Mariah Stovall is a literary assistant at Writers House and previously worked at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and at Gallery Books. Her fiction and nonfiction can be found in Vol 1. Brooklyn, Literary Hub, HelloGiggles, Joyland, Hobart, and elsewhere. She is working on her first novel.

Resources for Writers in Support of Justice and Action

6.6.20

As writers speak up, protest, and stand together with those who seek justice for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless others who have been murdered, marginalized, and repressed as a result of white supremacy and anti-Black racism, we acknowledge that our commitment to fighting for racial justice must extend beyond the page. To that end, we are compiling a list of resources that we hope will help you in your own response to racial injustice and police violence. We will be updating this list as we learn of new resources. (If you know about a resource not on this list, please send an e-mail to editor@pw.org.) Updated 3.19.21

 

Creative Ideas for Engagement

Organized by Nate Marshall and José Olivarez, a group of over twenty poets sent personalized poems to anyone who donated $20 or more to any bail fund.

Poets Kaveh Akbar and Paige Lewis raised more than $10,000 by drawing original comics for anyone who made a donation of $50 or more to any bail fund.

Poet Cameron Awkward-Rich gave copies of his books (up to thirty copies total) to anyone who donated at least $25 to the Okra Project, the Black Visions Collective, or the Emergency Release Fund.

Poet Danez Smith collected money via Venmo to distribute food, supplies, toys for kids, and more to community members in Minneapolis and the rest of the Twin Cities. 

Poets Safia Elhillo and Hieu Minh Nguyen raised money for People’s Breakfast Oakland, Bay Area Anti-Repression Committee Bail Fund, and Black Earth Farms by offering one-on-one poetry workshops or readings and copies of books, respectively, to anyone who donated to the funds.

Poet Kate O’Donoghue offered three hand-written poems or short prose passages to people who donated $10 to one of a group of Black-led queer organizations or mutual aid funds.

Publishers Weekly reported on how independent bookstores across the country are supporting the movement for Black lives. Strategies included donating to bail funds, curating reading lists, and opening physical space to protestors and organizers. 

Throughout the pandemic, Brooklyn-based literary nonprofit Wendy’s Subway has organized regular Wednesday writing nights. On June 3 the organizers chose a prompt to express solidarity with protestors: “If you’re not at a protest tonight, join us as we imagine abolishing the prison-industrial complex, imagine defunding the police, imagine an end to senseless Black death.” 

The Center for the Art of Translation and Two Lines Press matched donations up to $10,000 to the Bail Project, Black Lives Matter, Campaign Zero, and the Equal Justice Initiative.

Writer Hanif Abdurraqib donated 100 percent of his book royalties from all copies of his collection A Fortune for Your Disaster sold in 2020 to the Okra Project.  

Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds, and Jacqueline Woodson organized the Kidlit Rally for Black Lives, which was hosted by the Brown Bookshelf on Facebook Live on June 4, 7 EDT. More than twenty-five authors, publishers, and artists gathered to “unite in support of Black lives, speak to children about this moment, answer their questions, and offer ideas about steps we can all take going forward.”

Coffee House Press announced on June 4, 2020, that it will donate 10 percent of all profits from website sales to National Bail Out for an indefinite period.

Workers from across the publishing industry held a day of action on June 8, 2020, in solidarity with the protests around the country. Participants are taking the day off from work to devote time to support the Black community through protesting, organizing, and fundraising. Organizers suggest donating one day’s pay to a relevant fundraiser, and considering making the contribution a monthly commitment. Publishers Weekly reported on the effort. 

Independent publisher Ugly Duckling Presse printed protest signs available for pickup at their Brooklyn headquarters.

Broadside PR offered five free one-hour publicity consultations to Black authors with publishing contracts.

Writers Jessica Keener and Lise Haines launched the Writers Against Racial Injustice fund-raiser on Facebook for the Equal Justice Initiative. The first thirty people to donate more than $100 received a copy of Jabari Asim’s essay collection We Can’t Breathe.

Sundress Academy for the Arts donated $2 from every book sale, entry fee, or application fee to support the Loveland Therapy Fund, which provides financial assistance to Black women and girls nationally seeking therapy.

 

Reading Lists

Black Liberation Reading List, compiled by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library.

An Antiracist Reading List by Ibram X. Kendi, the director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center and author of Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. (New York Times)

Do the Work: An Anti-Racist Reading List by Layla F Saad, author of Me and White Supremacy. (Guardian)

A Nonfiction Anti-Racist Reading List (Publishers Weekly)

City Lights Bookstore’s Antiracist Reading List by the venerable independent bookseller in San Francisco.

What Is an Anti-Racist Reading List For? Lauren Michele Jackson, author of White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue. . . and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation, questions the sudden proliferation of anti-racist reading lists, for whom and for what purpose they serve. 

The University of Minnesota Press’s collection of antiracist books was available to read online for free through August 31, 2020.

Investing in Futures: Beyond Policing was “a free workshop of structured conversation, imagination, and play, designed in urgent response to the injustices and racism that resulted in the death of George Floyd which spurred protests across all 50 states and around the globe.”

 

Resources for Activism 

Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University “aims to attract support from visionary philanthropists and foundations to fund teams of scholars, policymakers, journalists, and advocates to examine racial problems anew, innovate and broadcast practical policy solutions, and work with policymakers to implement them.”

Black Lives Matter is “a global organization whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy, we are winning immediate improvements in our lives.”

Campaign Zero is a “data-informed platform that presents comprehensive solutions to end police violence in America. It integrates community demands and policy recommendations from research organizations and President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.” The Campaign also runs the “8 Can’t Wait” campaign, which lists eight policies that can reduce police violence, and provides information on which policies your city adopts and how to contact your mayor or sheriff.

The Equal Justice Initiative is focused on ”ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”

The NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, works to “secure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights in order to eliminate race-based discrimination and ensure the health and well-being of all persons.”

Unicorn Riot is a nonprofit media organization of artists and journalists “dedicated to exposing root causes of dynamic social and environmental issues through amplifying stories and exploring sustainable alternatives in today’s globalized world.”

Actionable Items for New Yorkers is an accessible Google Doc of concrete actions, including places to donate, scripts for calling local officials, and opportunities for volunteering. 

Defund12.org is a crowd-sourced tool for generating an e-mail demanding “government officials and council members to reallocate egregious police budgets towards education, social services, and dismantling racial inequality.”

 

Mutual Aid

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the United States, many communities turned to existing mutual aid programs or started their own. Vice explains that mutual aid is when “communities take on the responsibility for caring for one another, rather than forcing individuals to fend for themselves.” Mutual aid systems also typically lack a centralized hierarchy, and are instead run by volunteers. 

As the fight for racial justice causes further emotional and financial strain on Black communities, mutual funds are emerging as one opportunity for direct action. For instance, one group founded the short-term Disability Justice Mutual Aid Fund, as reported in Variety, which offers aid to disabled protest organizers. One longstanding network is Mutual Aid NYC, a “multi-racial network of people and groups building support systems for people in the New York area during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.” 

Different localities might have several different mutual aid funds, but if you can’t find one, here’s a guide to digital tools for mutual aid groups to help kickstart your own. 

 

Legal Defense & Bail Funds

Note: A number of organizations have reported an unprecedented volume of donations due to media coverage, and some are choosing to ask prospective donors to redirect their contributions elsewhere. Consult each website for updates before you donate.

The Bail Project is a nonprofit “designed to combat mass incarceration by disrupting the money bail system—one person at a time.” They are providing bail for protestors in cities where they have offices.

Brooklyn Community Bail Fund is “committed to challenging the racism, inequality, and injustice of a criminal legal system and immigration and deportation regime that disproportionately target and harm low-income communities of color.”

The Community Justice Exchange “develops, shares and experiments with tactical interventions, strategic organizing practices, and innovative organizing tools to end all forms of criminalization, incarceration, surveillance, supervision, and detention.” It hosts the National Bail Fund Network, a “formation of over sixty community-led bail and bond funds that are part of campaigns to end pretrial and immigration detention.”  

Minnesota Freedom Fund “pays criminal bail and immigration bond for those who cannot afford to as we seek to end discriminatory, coercive, and oppressive jailing.”

The National Bail Out collective is “a Black-led and Black-centered collective of abolitionist organizers, lawyers and activists building a community-based movement to support our folks and end systems of pretrial detention and ultimately mass incarceration.”

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program aims “to preserve and extend constitutionally guaranteed rights to people who have historically been denied their rights on the basis of race.”

Southern Poverty Law Center is a nonprofit legal advocacy organization “specializing in civil rights and public interest litigation. Based in Montgomery, Alabama, it is known for its legal cases against white supremacist groups, its classification of hate groups and other extremist organizations, and for promoting tolerance education programs.”

The mission of the National Lawyers Guild is “to use law for the people, uniting lawyers, law students, legal workers, and jailhouse lawyers to function as an effective force in the service of the people by valuing human rights and the rights of ecosystems over property interests.” The Guild is best known for its work defending the rights of protesters through the Mass Defense and Legal Observer Programs, “which have been providing legal support for movements for social justice for fifty years. Guild lawyers, law students, and legal workers observe police actions during protests, provide Know Your Rights trainings, track arrestees through the legal system, and provide free attorneys for protest-related cases.” The NLG has published many analyses on the right to dissent, including Punishing Protest: Government Tactics that Suppress Free Speech (2007), Policing of Political Speech (2010), and Developments in the Policing of National Special Security Events (2013), and provides free Know Your Rights handbooks for encounters with law enforcement in English, Spanish, Arabic, Bengali and Urdu.

The BLACK TRANS LEGAL and CARE FUND by PEACE OUT LOUD is “a fund collecting bail, medical and other necessities for Black Trans Activists” in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

Other Resources

Here’s Where You Can Donate to Help Protests Against Police Brutality (Rolling Stone) is a list of bail funds, legal aid, and other organizations “working to help activists seeking justice for George Floyd and other victims of police violence.”

Social Justice Resources for the Book Business (Publishers Weekly)

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has launched Talking About Race, an online portal of digital tools, exercises, videos, scholarly articles, and multimedia resources to help individuals, families, educators, and communities talk about racism, racial identity, and the way these forces shape every aspect of society and culture.

A Place to Start is “an incomplete list of resources and organizations for fighting racism and supporting justice and equality” compiled by the Museum of Modern Art.

I’m Writing to You: Letters From Writers of the Black Literary Community

by

Various

8.12.20

On June 11, 2020, during the third week of protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and against police violence, we posted an open call at pw.org inviting writers of the Black literary community to submit letters written to any individual or group—a friend, a family member, the publishing community, other writers, themselves—that loosely pertained to their lives as writers. Our intention was to give Black writers a platform to directly address whatever they wanted, and on their own terms. The following selection of letters is further evidence that, as Melva Graham puts it, writing, too, is a form of resistance. “Every time you sit down to write your true voice becomes louder,” she writes, “and in the fight for racial justice we need all the voices we can get.” 

Dear Fellow Black Writers by Melva Graham

To My Precious Black Son by Shanay Bell

To the Tentatively Hopeful by Kameron Bashi

A Letter to the Allies by S. P.

To Writers Struggling With Their Whiteness by Sarah Valentine

A Note to the Shareholders by Donald Quist

Dear White Readers, Gatekeepers, and Members of the Media by Candace McDuffie

Dear White Publishers by Noro Otitigbe

Dearest Tayari by Leslie-Ann Murray

Dear Black Queer Boy by Myron McGhee

My Beloved Black Ancestors by India Gonzalez

Top row, from left: Melva Graham, Shanay Bell, Kameron Bashi, and S. P. Middle row: Sarah Valentine, Candace McDuffie, and Donald Quist. Bottom row: Myron McGhee, Noro Otitigbe, Leslie-Ann Murray, and India Gonzalez.  (Credit: Graham: Photos by Jamaal; Bashi: Sean Pessin; Valentine: Marcello Rostagni; McDuffie: Daniel Irvin; Quist: Dalton Rook Barber; McGhee: Gina McGhee; Murray: Veronika Savitskaya; Gonzalez: Justin Aversano.)

Hashtag Highlights Anti-Black Bias

by

Jennifer Baker

8.12.20

The month of June brought the continuation of daily protests around the United States, and the world, in recognition of violence against Black people and the importance of Black lives. As protests progressed, waves of social media posts and newsletters from publishers proclaimed solidarity. Numerous publications made promises to stand with the Black community, insisting comprehension of the significance of Black lives and condemning racism. However, the numbers from various surveys—such as the Lee & Low Books Diversity Baseline Survey and Publishers Weekly’s annual salary survey—have continually reflected the dearth of Black people working in book publishing as well as the low numbers of Black authors published and supported within the industry. On June 5 on Twitter, Tochi Onyebuchi, author of the novel Riot Baby (Tor, 2020), noted the discrepancy in the abundance of empathetic posts to the Black community from publishers and the need to truly reconcile industry bias; as a first step he called for an open dialogue about the compensation Black creators receive in book advances. Onyebuchi asked, would white “allies” come forward? Several white authors replied that they would—but didn’t provide any numbers. A day later Leatrice “L. L.” McKinney, author of the young adult fantasy trilogy A Blade So Black (Imprint), created a hashtag and put out the call: “Come on, white authors. Use the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe and share what you got for your books. Debuts as well. Let’s go.” 

Advances were disclosed by hundreds of writers, including both emerging and well-known authors, and ranged in amount depending on publisher. The number of six-figure advances received by white writers eclipsed the number for Black writers, particularly in the case of debuts published by major houses. In genres such as literary fiction, a white male reported receiving $800,000 for his debut, and white authors writing young adult fantasy disclosed receiving more than $100,000 per book. Award-winning, critically acclaimed, and highly respected Black authors such as N. K. Jemisin, Kiese Laymon, and Jesmyn Ward, revealed their book advances or their struggles to advocate for more money even after the publication of well-received, solidly selling works. 

Many within the industry have been watching the progression of #PublishingPaidMe, including Black editors. Cherrita Lee, who has worked as an acquisitions editor at an indie press, says she sees #PublishingPaidMe as a “sad necessity” because it brings clear inequalities to light. “Salaries, advances, royalties, all payment and remuneration should be open, public, and honest. It’s the only way to ensure that payment structures are fair.” A Black editor at a Big Five publishing house, who asked to remain anonymous, says they do not anticipate any direct public response from publishers to #PublishingPaidMe. They said they do hope these publishers are “having internal conversations about the biases associated with advances” and offered some advice: “Stop telling editors to pick ‘realistic’ comparative titles and to be conservative when working on profit and loss statements for diverse books.” Profit and loss statements, or P&Ls, are a set of calculations editors use to project what a book will earn based on monies fronted by the publisher and how much the book is expected to sell; they are often drafted when an editor prepares to make an offer on a title and can influence the size of advances. Numbers are crunched to include in- and out-of-house costs, and when those numbers are based on underestimates of sales, they create advances that reflect flawed and biased thinking. 

While the size of book advances are often hinted at via coded language in announcements on the industry website Publishers Marketplace, one of the most public records of publishing deals, exact numbers aren’t often shared unless there has been an exceptionally large advance (typically six or seven figures) receiving media coverage. Though there are outliers, #PublishingPaidMe showcases that major publishers have often put those funds behind non-Black voices. In making this financial information publicly available, #PublishingPaidMe crystallizes the divergence between “perceived” value for Black stories and the same Black lives the industry proclaims to respect. 

Although publishers remained quiet about the inequities the hashtag laid bare, authors expressed their dismay on Twitter. For some the revelation was validating and for others eye-opening. Ivelisse Rodriguez, author of Love War Stories (Feminist Press, 2018), is hopeful for change that may come out of the #PublishingPaidMe discussion. “While the [results of the] hashtag [were] demoralizing and disheartening, I generally believe that you can only work with the truth. So my hope is that now that writers of color know this, they will be in a better position to negotiate and advocate for themselves.”

The demand for accountability isn’t losing steam. Since #PublishingPaidMe took off in June, hashtags and accounts popped up to bring more transparency to publishing salaries and to collate this information for authors in the United States and the United Kingdom. The day #PublishingPaidMe went viral, Hugo-nominated illustrator Grace Fong started a spreadsheet compiling the numbers shared online. Since then a Google form was created in which writers, illustrators, graphic novelists, and others can anonymously submit their publishing information. The newly formed Transparency Project, co-led by Onyebuchi, will maintain and compile this data with the help of volunteer statisticians; focus will remain on Black creators, in order to preserve the hashtag’s original intention. But as more information reveals inherent bias, the question remains: Will this lead to an actual dismantling of a problematic system? A second Black editor at another Big Five publisher, who also asked to be anonymous, says it remains to be seen: “I’m not sure I believe it all just yet, but I’m cautiously optimistic that if ever there was a time to shake the table and demand them to do more, to do better, it would be now.” 

 

Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional, creator of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, and a contributing editor for Electric Literature.

Tochi Onyebuchi and Leatrice “L. L.” McKinney. (Credit: Onyebuchi: Christina Orlando; McKinney: Nicole McLaughlin)

Dear White Publishers

by

Noro Otitigbe

8.12.20

Why did it take a public lynching for the literary community to want to hear my big Black voice? I have been submitting query letters and sending out manuscripts. I have been subscribing to literary magazines so that I can keep abreast of the writing community. I researched the agents who claim their interests are most in line with my work. I followed all the submission guidelines. I submitted poems and short stories to literary magazines that insist they are eager to hear bold new voices. I took the time to select my best material, attached it to a well-constructed introductory e-mail, then pressed Send. Then I waited. I waited to hear back from an agent, an agent’s assistant, or an editor. I waited to hear back from a gatekeeper who has access to resources that can advance my writing career. I waited.

I started writing when I graduated from New York University in May 2000. My meager administrative assistant salary afforded me an apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant      neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, located two blocks from the G train. The G train is a neglected New York City transit line that is constantly malfunctioning and sporadically serves what was once considered a low-income section of the city. I spent many hours on the dreary train station platform waiting for the G train, which connected me to the A train, which finally shuttled me to and from my place of employment in Manhattan. The wait became mind-numbing, so I bought a set of black Moleskin notebooks and I began to scribble whatever came to my mind during those long gaps of immobility. During that time I penned a lot of flash fiction and poetry. Expressing myself with a pen and paper kept me sane when I felt I had very little power to change my squalid living situation. I entered some of my work in writing contests. I waited.

In the years since then, I have spent most of my time honing my writing skills. I have actively participated in numerous writing workshops, creative writing classes, and critique groups. I became a regular on the open mic scene, and I completed a novel and a book of poetry. I submitted my manuscripts to various literary agencies and publishers, and I eagerly awaited a response. I waited.

This past May the whole world bore witness to a public execution that was reminiscent of both a decapitation during the Reign of Terror and a Black man being lynched in the South after the Civil War. While millions of Black people responded in outrage by taking to the streets, sharing stories of racism and calling out companies for racist practices, white people publicly aligned themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement, and companies expressed the sudden need to support Black businesses, influencers, writers, etc. I want to believe that after years of fighting oppression, white people finally see that systemic racism is a problem, but I can’t help but wonder whether publishers and other companies are taking advantage of the momentum while also taking a preemptive strike in case someone points out that they, too, are racist.

Dear white publishers, I am a Black woman who has been writing for many years. I have invested a lot of time and money to enhance my writing skills. There isn’t an agent I haven’t sent a query letter to or a publisher I didn’t research to make sure my work fits their guidelines. I do the work, and I have seen my white peers advance while I am told that my stories are controversial, or “we can’t take a risk on you.” You are now calling for the Black stories that you’ve been pushing aside for years. I really don’t care what your motives are. I do ask that when you publish me and my fellow Black writers, you offer us the same money, contract, and marketing you would to a white man writing yet another western novel. You decide which books are worthy of reading, so now it’s your chance to tell readers that books by Black authors belong on the front shelf at Barnes & Noble. Black novels should be debated in book clubs. Black stories should be turned into movies.

It is unfortunate that it took a man’s public demise coupled with massive demonstrations of white rage for this moment to come to fruition. But so be it. I would like to be among the crop of Black writers who emerged from the ashes of a torched racist system—or at least a system that was forced to publicly acknowledge institutionalized racism. 

Noro Otitigbe

 

Noro Otitigbe is an author, poet, and spoken word artist who has performed on stages in New York, Berlin, Nigeria, and Italy. She is the recipient of the 2019 Jericho Fellowship Playwright Prize. Otitigbe holds a bachelor’s degree in communication studies with a minor in cultural anthropology from New York University. Her debut novel, “ideations,” was completed while participating in the Community Literature Initiative Workshop at the University of Southern California. She can be found on Instagram, @noroskoo

Dear White Readers, Gatekeepers, and Members of the Media

by

Candace McDuffie

8.12.20

The conversations around racism and anti-Blackness in the media industry are finally rising to the surface. It feels like a long overdue reckoning. Because of the constant occurrence of police brutality and violence against us—which caused subsequent global protests—Black America’s struggle to receive any semblance of justice has permeated the nation’s consciousness. But as white folks in publishing start to use their voices to state that Black lives do indeed matter, I feel that it’s evident they show up for us only when it’s fashionable and pertinent for them to do so, with no real interest in advocating for Black communities.  

The language surrounding how we acknowledge racism has changed. I have been shocked by the fact that white people are using the word Black with such specificity and so blatantly (although the “all lives matter” crew still manages to rear its head now and then). And while this awareness is vital—coupled with a “new” understanding of how white supremacy is embedded in journalism/media—some of it remains quite performative. Suddenly there’s a need for white consumers of my work as well as editors to offer up allyship and resources when they previously participated in biased systems without any remorse.  

I wrote about COVID-19 three separate times over the past three months: how it impacts communities of color more severely. (Since the start of quarantine, my mother, brother, and niece have been and still are frontline workers.) Not one white person crawled into my inbox feigning concern about racism or asking about how the Black community is doing (to put this in perspective, I received over a dozen of these messages since the Minneapolis riots). The resources currently being offered to Black writers like myself from white editors—including free workshops, pitching advice, and contacts—is something I thought I would never see since I started my freelance career over a decade ago. 

When I did my entrepreneur profiles that highlighted people of color at Forbes (which ended two years ago), white folks weren’t asking how to elevate their achievements—they only reached out if they wanted to pitch their clients to the series. I’ve written about anti-Blackness in the fashion industry, how the country disposes of Black women and girls, how Black folks are punished for their methods of protests. It was crickets then, too. Systemic racism has been the basis of America for the past four hundred years—so why are you suddenly publicly supporting Black people? The truth is: These acts of solidarity are worthless if you are not consistently supporting and standing up for us every single day. 

This means routinely acknowledging, questioning, and working to eradicate systems you benefit from. It means recruiting diverse hires, giving them leadership positions, and paying them their worth. It means giving Black writers the space and support to authentically be themselves in the newsroom. It means soliciting us to write different kinds of articles, not just ones centering our traumas. It means reading and sharing our work when it’s about social issues—not just fashion tips, viral dances, or rappers you should listen to. It means showing support for Black people on social media without using their likeness as avatars and making yourself the center of the conversation. We’ve been Black, which means we never had the luxury of learning and unlearning racism because we’ve always been on the receiving end of it. But if you’re truly devoted to helping Black people in this field, then you must not only show up for us regularly—you need to do it right. 

Candace McDuffie

 

Candace McDuffie is a culture and music journalist whose work has been featured in outlets such as Entertainment Weekly, Al Jazeera, Rolling Stone, and NBC News. She is currently based in Boston.

(Photo: Daniel Irvin)

Hashtag Highlights Anti-Black Bias

by

Jennifer Baker

8.12.20

The month of June brought the continuation of daily protests around the United States, and the world, in recognition of violence against Black people and the importance of Black lives. As protests progressed, waves of social media posts and newsletters from publishers proclaimed solidarity. Numerous publications made promises to stand with the Black community, insisting comprehension of the significance of Black lives and condemning racism. However, the numbers from various surveys—such as the Lee & Low Books Diversity Baseline Survey and Publishers Weekly’s annual salary survey—have continually reflected the dearth of Black people working in book publishing as well as the low numbers of Black authors published and supported within the industry. On June 5 on Twitter, Tochi Onyebuchi, author of the novel Riot Baby (Tor, 2020), noted the discrepancy in the abundance of empathetic posts to the Black community from publishers and the need to truly reconcile industry bias; as a first step he called for an open dialogue about the compensation Black creators receive in book advances. Onyebuchi asked, would white “allies” come forward? Several white authors replied that they would—but didn’t provide any numbers. A day later Leatrice “L. L.” McKinney, author of the young adult fantasy trilogy A Blade So Black (Imprint), created a hashtag and put out the call: “Come on, white authors. Use the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe and share what you got for your books. Debuts as well. Let’s go.” 

Advances were disclosed by hundreds of writers, including both emerging and well-known authors, and ranged in amount depending on publisher. The number of six-figure advances received by white writers eclipsed the number for Black writers, particularly in the case of debuts published by major houses. In genres such as literary fiction, a white male reported receiving $800,000 for his debut, and white authors writing young adult fantasy disclosed receiving more than $100,000 per book. Award-winning, critically acclaimed, and highly respected Black authors such as N. K. Jemisin, Kiese Laymon, and Jesmyn Ward, revealed their book advances or their struggles to advocate for more money even after the publication of well-received, solidly selling works. 

Many within the industry have been watching the progression of #PublishingPaidMe, including Black editors. Cherrita Lee, who has worked as an acquisitions editor at an indie press, says she sees #PublishingPaidMe as a “sad necessity” because it brings clear inequalities to light. “Salaries, advances, royalties, all payment and remuneration should be open, public, and honest. It’s the only way to ensure that payment structures are fair.” A Black editor at a Big Five publishing house, who asked to remain anonymous, says they do not anticipate any direct public response from publishers to #PublishingPaidMe. They said they do hope these publishers are “having internal conversations about the biases associated with advances” and offered some advice: “Stop telling editors to pick ‘realistic’ comparative titles and to be conservative when working on profit and loss statements for diverse books.” Profit and loss statements, or P&Ls, are a set of calculations editors use to project what a book will earn based on monies fronted by the publisher and how much the book is expected to sell; they are often drafted when an editor prepares to make an offer on a title and can influence the size of advances. Numbers are crunched to include in- and out-of-house costs, and when those numbers are based on underestimates of sales, they create advances that reflect flawed and biased thinking. 

While the size of book advances are often hinted at via coded language in announcements on the industry website Publishers Marketplace, one of the most public records of publishing deals, exact numbers aren’t often shared unless there has been an exceptionally large advance (typically six or seven figures) receiving media coverage. Though there are outliers, #PublishingPaidMe showcases that major publishers have often put those funds behind non-Black voices. In making this financial information publicly available, #PublishingPaidMe crystallizes the divergence between “perceived” value for Black stories and the same Black lives the industry proclaims to respect. 

Although publishers remained quiet about the inequities the hashtag laid bare, authors expressed their dismay on Twitter. For some the revelation was validating and for others eye-opening. Ivelisse Rodriguez, author of Love War Stories (Feminist Press, 2018), is hopeful for change that may come out of the #PublishingPaidMe discussion. “While the [results of the] hashtag [were] demoralizing and disheartening, I generally believe that you can only work with the truth. So my hope is that now that writers of color know this, they will be in a better position to negotiate and advocate for themselves.”

The demand for accountability isn’t losing steam. Since #PublishingPaidMe took off in June, hashtags and accounts popped up to bring more transparency to publishing salaries and to collate this information for authors in the United States and the United Kingdom. The day #PublishingPaidMe went viral, Hugo-nominated illustrator Grace Fong started a spreadsheet compiling the numbers shared online. Since then a Google form was created in which writers, illustrators, graphic novelists, and others can anonymously submit their publishing information. The newly formed Transparency Project, co-led by Onyebuchi, will maintain and compile this data with the help of volunteer statisticians; focus will remain on Black creators, in order to preserve the hashtag’s original intention. But as more information reveals inherent bias, the question remains: Will this lead to an actual dismantling of a problematic system? A second Black editor at another Big Five publisher, who also asked to be anonymous, says it remains to be seen: “I’m not sure I believe it all just yet, but I’m cautiously optimistic that if ever there was a time to shake the table and demand them to do more, to do better, it would be now.” 

 

Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional, creator of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, and a contributing editor for Electric Literature.

Tochi Onyebuchi and Leatrice “L. L.” McKinney. (Credit: Onyebuchi: Christina Orlando; McKinney: Nicole McLaughlin)

Q&A: Ehrlich Speaks to Mother-Writers

by

Susannah Nevison

4.14.21

Lara Ehrlich, author of the short story collection Animal Wife (Red Hen Press, 2020), has a deep narrative investment in the ways the world denies women power and agency. In October 2020 that commitment took a new shape with the first episode of her podcast, Writer Mother Monster, a much-needed balm for those of us balancing mothering and writing in the midst of a global pandemic. Aimed at dismantling the myth that women can “have it all,” her podcast is a series of interviews with mother-writers working in all genres, at varied points in their careers, who candidly discuss the joys and complications of that dual identity. Ehrlich, herself a mother-writer—her daughter turns five this year—spoke about what she has gleaned from these exchanges and how they’ve influenced her own approach.

How did you start Writer Mother Monster? Are there other podcasts about mothering and writing that helped frame your approach?
I’ve always wanted to be a Writer with a capital “W” and I’d absorbed the message—both subliminal and overt—that motherhood extinguishes creativity. When my husband and I started talking in earnest about having a family, I began to ask writer-moms, “How do you prioritize your children and your work?” That question has persisted and taken on different forms: the experience of writer-motherhood was different when I was pregnant than when I had a newborn than when I was chasing after a toddler. Writer-motherhood means a constant reevaluation of the question: How do we mother and write? As Lori L. Tharps said on a recent episode, “Your books want all of you, and your kids want all of you.”

In the midst of this questioning, I looked for podcasts that offered solidarity through personal stories, deep dives into craft, and actionable parenting and writing advice. There are podcasts about parenting, writing, working motherhood, and motherhood and creativity—but I was unable to find one specifically for writer-moms. I started the podcast I wanted to see in the world. I imagined other women were probably longing for the same thing I was, so I brought the conversations I was having with other writer-moms to a public forum.

My favorite literary podcast is David Naimon’s Between the Covers, now hosted on the Tin House platform. While Between the Covers isn’t a mothering-writing podcast, David’s generous, insightful conversations draw out how each author’s lives intersect with—and often nourish—their craft. I study his interviewing style to prepare for my own conversations with guests.

What are the dangers inherent in telling writer-mothers “you can have it all”? How does your podcast deconstruct that myth?
The superwoman myth is so damaging. Like many women I grew up believing: “I’m a liberated woman; I can have a career and a family and pursue my passion.” When I became a mother I realized that’s impossible. The cost of day care is prohibitive, women are still paid less than our male counterparts, and we carry the mental load at home. The more we think we should be doing, the more inadequate we feel because we can’t possibly do it all. Then we’re bombarded with the message that we’re bad mothers, bad employees, and bad wives. We’re monsters. I try to deconstruct that myth by breaking down, reexamining, and embracing qualities that in women have long been considered monstrous, like selfishness, desire, ambition, and ferocity. Each guest has embraced the monstrous in different and equally illuminating ways, and we support one another in confronting the superwoman ideal of doing everything perfectly all the time. As Amy Shearn said in the first episode, “So much of being creative is giving up control and letting in a little bit of wildness.”

Writer Mother Monster powerfully refuses to address writing and mothering as mutually exclusive jobs. How do you center conversations about motherhood and writing without diminishing the importance of either identity?
The central message of Writer Mother Monster is just that: We can be mothers and writers, and both roles are vital to our selfhood. The prevailing message in our society is that motherhood is paramount; if we want also to write, then we should squeeze it in around everything else or make room by sacrificing our sleep rather than our work or our time with family. 

Nearly all the authors I’ve spoken to have said they feel guilt and shame when prioritizing their craft, when closing the door and asking—or demanding!—time and space for their creative pursuits. Everyone’s situation is different, and closing the door is not possible for all women, but the metaphor of the closed door holds so much power, in whatever form it takes—even if it’s claiming a corner of the dining room table to write for ten minutes a day. I loved in one episode when Lyz Lenz said, “You’re not stealing time; that time belongs to you. Take it, and don’t apologize for it, because your contributions to this world matter. You as a full human being matter.”

Many Writer Mother Monster authors have talked about the importance of modeling for our children that we are whole people with lives independent of their wants and needs. Beth Ann Fennelly’s son played with Lego toys in the back of her lectures and Ann Hood took her children on book tours. Now that her kids are older, Ann says they appreciate her work: “They’re proud because they know it’s hard to be a writer, that you sit with nothing and you make something.” And our writing may even offer our children insight into their own humanity, as poet Tzynya Pinchback said: “It’s overwhelming to think that my daughter is going to see me splayed out, writing about my flawed decisions, but it’s great for her to understand that there’s no perfect way to be a mom or a woman or a human.”

Writer Mother Monster often illustrates the surprising ways mothering and writing are profoundly connected. In what ways is this true for you?
For a long time I aspired to write the Great American Novel, trying to emulate Hemingway and Faulkner and other dead white guys. Writing about women, writing from a woman’s perspective, seemed at once insignificant and too raw. Everyday life was too humble to be the subject of worthy literature. Obviously, I was wrong. Like many, I grew up reading the canon as determined by the patriarchy, and I was reading neither books by women nor books about everyday life. It’s worth noting that of course not all books by women are about everyday life, and not all books about everyday life are by women—but that’s a prevailing myth. As I got older and my life became complicated in all the best ways—and some very challenging ways—by career and marriage and children, I began to realize that drama is not found only in the subjects of War or Love or Death. There is nothing more dramatic than motherhood, no one more heroic than a mother.

Many of the writers you’ve interviewed say that motherhood has reshaped their approach to writing women and women’s stories. Has motherhood changed your understanding of narrative power?
Motherhood has deepened my women characters and complicated my approach to narrative structure. This shift coincided with the birth of my daughter, in the middle of writing the stories that would go on to become Animal Wife. I began exploring women who claim more than one role in the world and experimenting with new-to-me narrative styles like flash fiction and fragmentation.

Something Rachel Zucker said in her episode stuck with me, “Prose, poetry, memoir, short story, creative nonfiction, essay, lyric essay, audio transcription—there was no one of those that was adequate to describing the experiences of motherhood. How do you communicate experiences that are internal or external, in the body, in the subconscious, the way you have the running tape in your mind all the time? The novel wasn’t really invented for that material.” Motherhood has revealed to me at once the power of my own stories and the limitations inherent in communicating the inexpressible. And isn’t that what it means to be a writer? 

Read a selection of the best insights and pieces of advice offered on Writer Mother Monster, curated by Lara Ehrlich specifically for Poets & Writers Magazine.

 

Susannah Nevison is the author of the poetry collections Teratology (Persea Books, 2015), Lethal Theater (Ohio State University Press, 2019), and, in collaboration with Molly McCully Brown, In the Field Between Us (Persea Books, 2020). She teaches at Sweet Briar College.

Lara Ehrlich (Credit: Fandom House Studio)

Twelve Pieces of Advice for Mother-Writers

by

Staff

4.14.21

In the May/June 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Susannah Nevinson interviewed writer Lara Ehrlich about hosting Writer Mother Monster, a podcast featuring conversations with mother-writers. To complement the interview, Ehrlich curated the following selection of the best insights and pieces of advice offered on the podcast since it premiered in October 2020.

Claim and honor your time. “It’s tempting to feel that any time you take for yourself, you’re taking away from your child. That can be heartbreaking,” says Blair Hurley. “But it’s important for children to see their mother valuing herself and valuing her work. And it’s important to have unfettered time, however you manage it, and to do your best to honor that time and only focus on writing.”

Take baby steps. When working toward a goal, whether it’s a short story or an epic novel, Liz Harmer establishes a routine with manageable steps. “I’m just going to finish a story. And then I’m going to finish another story. As time passes, you end up with fifteen or twenty stories. The habit perpetuates itself.” 

Abandon the pursuit of perfection. “You will not be perfect, you will not have a perfectly clean house, you will not have a rigid schedule—no,” says Carla Du Pree. “It’s not going to be perfect, but life isn’t either, and neither is writing. Quite frankly, that first draft is usually horrible.”

Find fifteen minutes a day. “I realized when I was pumping—that was fifteen minutes. It was terrible writing, but I was exercising a muscle in the dark,” says Jennifer Chen. “All those fifteen-minute sessions gave me the muscle to write as fast as possible without thinking, ‘I don’t know if this is good.’ I just did it. I don’t have time for self-doubt.” 

Value your work if you want others to value it. “Work—and your passion—don’t always make money. We will not be valued unless we value ourselves and what we’re doing, and I always saw the value in my writing time,” says Ann Hood. “If you see your writing as worthwhile, then it is.” 

Redefine writing. The concept that an author is only at work if she is hunched over a desk is old-fashioned and limiting, especially for new mothers. “What works best for me is when I read books that are in conversation with what I’m working on. That feels like I’m touching the work,” says Katie Gutierrez. “It’s also giving myself permission to daydream and to use those daydreams as [part of] touching the work.”

Don’t strive to be superwoman. “There’s never going to be enough time for everything, and I just have to make peace with that,” says Daria Polatin. “I’m always probably going to feel like I’m not doing enough in a certain area, whether it’s this project or that project or my son or my husband. There’s only so much pie, you know?”

Write true. In experiencing and writing about the loss of a child Shannon Gibney says, “I feel deeply that if you’re writing and you’re not telling the truth, I don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t know why you would write. We can’t choose the truth we’ve been tasked to document. Sometimes it might feel too heavy, and sometimes it might be too heavy. That’s just how it is.”

Prioritize writing. Lyz Lenz says, “My writing is my career, and it is a priority, and that means it’s a priority over folding clothes, it’s a priority over raking the lawn, it’s a priority over all those things that we somehow think we need to do that are really just ancillary to the task of living.” 

Embrace the joy of work. Many mothers feel as though we must assure our kids we’d rather be with them than working. But why make it out to be a chore? Rachel Zucker says, “I’ve been trying to do a better job of telling my kids how much I love to work and not feel horribly guilty about it.” 

It’s okay not to write. “If it’s becoming too difficult, it’s okay to take breaks, especially when you first have a kid and they’re really dependent on you,” says Elle Nash. “They’re really little for a very short period of time. If you need to take that break and spend that time with them, that’s 100 percent okay.”

Just show up. “The contract I have with myself is to be at my desk and in the right mental space, which means I cannot have checked e-mail, I cannot have looked at internet banking,” says Beth Ann Fennelly. “I go to my desk as close to my dream life as possible. If I’m there, and nothing happens—if I can’t write, that’s fine. I was there. That’s all I asked of myself. I’ll try again the next day.” 

Enduring Discovery: Marriage, Parenthood, and Poetry

by

Brenda Shaughnessy and Craig Morgan Teicher

8.31.12

Finding a poet in New York City is like shooting fish in a barrel, but finding one who’s a kindred spirit, a romantic partner, and a writer you truly admire is more like landing Moby Dick in your third-floor Brooklyn walk-up. We probably met four or five times at various poetry venues and milieus—the Poetry Society of America, Columbia University, Poets House, and the venerable poet’s haunt Café Loup—before we ended up talking deeply over the stacks of poetry submissions we were both reading for Tin House magazine and then over dinner. We fell for each other quickly and were married almost two years later.

Shortly thereafter, Craig’s first book, Brenda Is in the Room and Other Poems, won the Colorado Prize for Poetry and was published by the Center for Literary Publishing, and Brenda found—after much anxiety—a publisher for her second book, Human Dark With Sugar (Copper Canyon Press, 2008). Thus feeling sufficiently productive, we decided to reproduce. We were excited for a year of new beginnings, but our lives changed in a completely unexpected way with the birth of our first child. After a healthy pregnancy with no complications, our son suffered a catastrophic brain injury at delivery. This devastated all of us, and changed everything. All those dreams and feelings that new parents generally share were for us replaced by absolute terror and anguish and endless questions.

Cal had a radically nontypical infancy, and in our impassioned new role as parents we learned how to be tougher than we ever thought possible, because our son needed us to be. We were thrust into a complex world of therapies, specialists, and medicines, but it was the uncertainty that would keep us up at night. The only thing we knew for sure about Cal was that we were utterly crazy about him. We adore him. He’s our hero. Our beautiful, amazing boy is now five years old and he has severe cerebral palsy. He’s nonambulatory, nonverbal, and has a smile that lights up a room like nothing else. Yes, we’ve been through hell, but we’ve had this angelic, loving, marvelous child with us the whole time.

In no small way our love of and commitment to poetry—especially to each other’s—has enabled us to remain hopeful, joyful, and most of all, imaginative through some of the most challenging experiences any parent, or any couple, could face. Poetry has been one of the major forces that strengthen our family.

As poets, as individuals, we write separately. As a couple, we compose privately and then engage each other in revising and critiquing. But this year we have the unusual privilege of publishing poetry collections at the same time: Craig’s second, To Keep Love Blurry (BOA Editions), and Brenda’s third, Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon Press), will both be released this month. But these books share more than just a pub date; they share a family, describe a marriage, and navigate an excruciating crisis, accessing these common experiences through two very different portals. The poetics of To Keep Love Blurry and Our Andromeda are, to each other, foreign currency, though they reveal two sides of the same coin. The books deal with many of the same subjects: our marriage, our young son’s injury and disability, the relationship of art to life, the lessons of growing up, and intense pain, bittersweet acceptance, and big joy. Needless to say, we each deal with it all radically differently. Craig’s style is extremely formal in this book, a real departure for him, while Brenda wrote a few poems that are much longer than anything she’s ever attempted before.

We root for each other’s work, which is good because these books delve into our shared private lives. We are also genuinely nervous for that same reason. We’ve thought a lot about the way poetry fits into and shapes our marriage and our daily lives and we want to share some of what we’ve discovered.

 

We believe writing these poems makes our family stronger, we hope they may help others in similar situations, and we believe making art out of life is essential.

A COUPLE OF POETS

We’d always heard it was ill advised for a poet to couple up with another poet. The main two reasons—and who could argue—are that poets are notoriously competitive and that poets are notoriously poor. A poet should wed a banker, and if no banker is available, and the poet simply must be with another “creative,” then a suitable commercial-fiction writer will do. For us, there wasn’t an option. Who else but another poet would have us?

Brenda: I love being married to a poet, especially since Craig and I don’t compete with each other. Not because we’re so evolved that we’re immune to that pitfall, but because we’ve simply never tried to catch the same wave. Craig and I met when he was a very new writer, and I was trying to find a publisher for my second book. So although we were in different spots in our writing careers, we both happened to be in really vulnerable places. I think we felt protective of each other and wanted to be nurturing. His first book, Brenda Is in the Room and Other Poems, was published in 2007, and my first book, Interior With Sudden Joy, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1999. He’s always been so unwaveringly supportive of my writing, and I believe deeply in his work. It’s not complicated. I think Craig is an incredible poet, and this book is his finest yet. I feel lucky to be a part of his process, lucky to be the “Brenda” in his poems.

Craig: Frankly, I always imagined marrying a poet. The time I started to get seriously interested in girls coincided with the time I began to get seriously interested in poetry. Or, because in the dark depths of my roiling teenage heart I never imagined I would get married, I imagined crashing and burning with another poet aflame by my side. I never actually dated anybody who didn’t write poems. As a teenager and as a college student, I thought of poetry writing as a habit that set me apart from other people, the thing I did that made me special (I was no good at baseball). As I got older, it became clear that poetry’s real importance in my life had little to do with feeling unique. It had very little to do with what others thought and everything to do with the simple fact that writing was so meaningful to me that I wanted to organize my life around it.

Poetry demands a lifestyle that can be hard to share with another person: lots of quiet time, lots of frenzied conversation sparked by frequent epiphanies, bookshelves threatening to squeeze out all the people in the home. Most poets lead double lives, doing one thing to earn a living (even if it’s teaching poetry or editing reviews of poetry books) and then having a writing life in the evenings. Poet couples have to make accommodations for that. What I never imagined was this: If poetry was an unusual habit, then I would need to find a partner with whom it could be normal. I didn’t want to be the only poet in the house.

I can’t imagine spending my life with someone who doesn’t have the poem-making bug. It’s simply about priorities that are fundamentally in sync. For instance, I was having trouble writing my part of this essay. Finally, today, after our son had his preschool graduation ceremony and after I taught our one-year-old daughter to put the animals back into her plush barn, Brenda sent me off to our writing studio for the night.

Brenda: This might be the true secret of the sane poet-couple: Rent writing space. Make it as private as possible. This single thing has completely changed our lives.

Craig: It’s a magical place about a fifteen-minute walk from where we live, with desks and a daybed and wall decals of foxes and birches and other things that remind us of the woods at MacDowell Colony, where we’ve both spent time; it’s also stocked with books of poetry. With two kids, one of them medically fragile, we don’t get away very often. It’s hard sometimes to remember that we are writers, and, in addition to being parents, we are also people who met and fell in love with each other. So we rent this little place, this little fantasy place that we decided is a priority, where we can go and remember who and what we are and want to be, where we can be writers first and foremost. The only person who would agree to prioritize such an expensive indulgence of time and space is another writer.

Brenda: We both have this desire, this need, to write and to transform the feelings and experiences of daily life into poetry. It keeps us on the same page in all kinds of literal and figurative ways. The ordinary daily stresses of what’s institutionally called “work-life balance” are intense enough; factoring in disturbance or crisis, any household could easily capsize into chaos and despair. There are times when Craig and I are both really sad about our son’s injury and ongoing health and developmental struggles, and other times when we feel only one of us is allowed to grieve or be angry at a time, because the other adult has to keep an even keel. Still other times we’re just dancing around joyfully, or stressed and busy, or fully engaged with our kids, our jobs, our friends—our lives. Writing is a potent and renewable resource. We always have a blank page to turn to, an at-home reader to trust, and any number of new ideas to bounce around. Our lives are intertwined with kids and friends, caregivers and schools and doctors and specialists, and throughout all of it there’s this running conversation about literature, about poetry. Lately we’ve been reading the work of Jorie Graham together, marveling at poetry as if for the first time and finding new ways to describe its beauty and brilliance.

 

THE SECOND PERSON

Brenda is a recurrent theme in Craig’s poems; Craig appears very rarely, and only glancingly in Brenda’s work, even though both books describe the same home life. That got us thinking about why we each transform essentially the same material into such different kinds of poems.

Brenda: I wrote a lot of love poems in my first book. Most of them were only possible because my relation to those objects of desire was already a thing of the past. The love poems in Interior With Sudden Joy were grief-stricken celebrations of love lost. Some of the love poems in my second book, Human Dark With Sugar, were swan songs to exes. I don’t feel the same compulsion to render Craig in text and metaphor because he hasn’t disappeared. He’s there day in and day out. There is no anguished longing, no poetical need to conjure the lost love, no “tonight I can write the saddest lines,” because my relationship with Craig is one in which we communicate and touch and laugh and experience so much together. Why would I write about Craig? My occasions to write are when I am trying to catch something fleeting. If a lover has fled me, that situation yields so much for me. If an emotion eludes me—a dream, a yearning for my child’s good health, certainty, adventure, and all the possibilities—I write about those things precisely because I can’t have them. Barthes, Freud, and others say that desire is predicated on lack, we must lack the things we desire. We cannot desire that which we already have. There must be some distance between wanting and getting, and that distance is called desire. I am not saying I don’t desire my husband. I do. He’s utterly adorable to me. I’m saying I don’t have to bridge the gap between him and me in poetry.

I don’t “not have” Craig, so he doesn’t show up in my poems, that place I’ve always thought of as a sacred new world, a place where I could make real what isn’t. Poetry is a place where I can be a gust of wind and a spark and the scene that turns them into a fire, and I can also be the firefighter who saves the sleeping people from the conflagration, and the voice that tells the reader why the whole scenario exists at all, and then I can disappear. I can disappear in what never happened, what only happened because I wrote it. Poetry is where I write my wishes and fears and alternate existences. My husband is, to my delight, true and real and of this plane of existence, and so I am free to imagine other realities.

Craig: I want to say that in this book Brenda is a character and Cal is a character and my dad and my mom are characters. And, of course, that is absolutely true. Yet I also use their real names. I use Brenda’s name a lot. I describe events that actually happened. In one long poem, there’s an episode in which, while assembling a coatrack from Ikea, I drop a piece inside another piece, losing it, and Brenda blows up at me and I respond in kind. That actually happened, and it seems to me a fairly accurate portrayal of how things are with us when we get stressed out.

However, the versions of Brenda, of Cal, of anyone in this book are not so much characters as caricatures. They are exaggerated, overblown, and inaccurate in meaningful ways. I wrote about real people so that I could see how I felt about them, how I felt not all the time but sometimes. But writing about real people makes the poem feel alive to me. I’m aware that I risk offending or hurting the people I write about—for instance, please don’t tell my dad about this book. He would not find my portrayals flattering.

Brenda: Perhaps. But more likely it’s not for you to predict or know.

Craig: What I mean is that one of the reasons the stakes in these poems feel high is because they risk intruding on my real life. That gives them a sense of urgency. People may be led to think that Brenda and I fight a lot more than we do. People may think I have a lot less fun with my kids than I do. People are going to think, if they take this book as autobiography, that I am an obnoxious self-aggrandizing jerk. I’m not, I swear! I’m a dad who has written a funky version of Old MacDonald to play for his son and daughter over and over and over. It’s hardly the stuff of poetry, which isn’t supposed to be happy! Poetry is not the forum for problems with solutions! For that, we have television.

Robert Lowell was the patron saint of my book. There’s no better exemplar of how experience can be made meaningful, even metaphoric, through poetry than he. He understood, deeply, that a powerful kind of drama arises when a poem seems to be reporting from life while in fact it reports from the imagination. He was often very cruel in his poems—look at “To Speak of the Woe That Is in Marriage,” an extraordinary sonnet that is recklessly self-critical and aggrandizing at the same time—but he was really using the material of his lived life as a point from which to extrapolate, from which to exaggerate. He did some violence with his art that I’m not willing to do. When I write about Brenda or Cal, it’s not them, but feelings about them (perhaps not even feelings I really feel) at one particular moment—most often an imagined moment—that I’m describing. And yet those imaginary feelings help me see my real feelings clearer. Poetry is also the place where I let my demons graze: In a poem, my worst selves can act out all they want.

Of course, my poems are also a kind of perpetual valentine to Brenda. She has become, in a very practical sense, my muse: It’s through imagining her that I get to my best poetry. I call that a lucky marriage.

Brenda: It’s funny. Even though Craig wrote that poem about the Ikea coatrack, and of course I’ve read the poem and was also there for the actual event, I never noticed the symbolic meaning of what happened. You dropped one piece inside the other, losing it. We were moving apartments, if you recall, in complete upheaval, recombining our lives and all our belongings, renegotiating space. Remember how stressful it was to feel we were dropping ourselves inside the other, losing ourselves in the other person. The purchase of the coatrack was supposed to provide a solution to the entryway space problem, and instead it exposed nerves.

And then you say I “blow up,” or another way of putting that is I exploded or exposed that pent-up anxiety, releasing that unexpressed fear. But isn’t that just how it is: We need writing, a re-vision, to see what happened. It’s not enough to just live it, or to write it even once. Only now, upon revisiting that scene, is it clear what the stakes had been. Amazing. How do nonwriters know what happens? Or are things more obvious to them? Do we poets use our poetry to explain our lives and our feelings to ourselves? Or do we use it to avoid having to know these things in real life?

THE ACTUAL TO THE TRUE

In her essay “Against Sincerity,” Louise Glück precisely delineates the difference between actuality (which she says is “the world of event”) and truth, which she defines as “illumination, or enduring discovery which is the ideal of art.” So, she goes on, “The artist’s task…involves the transformation of the actual to the true.” We have tried to make art of our experience, our marriage, our family, our consciousness, and our events. Glück adds, “The secrets we choose to betray lose power over us.” But as we approach the publication of these books, our secrets still feel powerful, even frightening, and we also feel it is important that we expressed them, gave them the power of being spoken. We believe writing these poems makes our family stronger, we hope they may help others in similar situations, and we believe making art out of life is essential.

Brenda: There was a very secret place I went to in writing the long poem about Cal (the title poem in Our Andromeda). I wrote it at Yaddo, which is of course a well-known place, but it has a magic key that opens up the secret place in oneself. With that key I gave myself permission to fantasize about a parallel world in which my son was not injured at birth, a world in which he’d been allowed to live in his own body without the pain and restriction of cerebral palsy. In the safe space of Yaddo, I let myself give into yearning for his would-be path. I let my imagination get deep into the bargaining and begging every mother does for the safety of her child. I was beseeching the only gods I know how to talk to, the gods of poetry, to give Cal back his body intact. Cal’s would-be path: I had to imagine, construct, create it. I had to write it to make it exist. It was perhaps the most perverse act of longing I’d ever committed. I’ve written so many poems about sexual longing—oh if only that person would return my love, or my lover would come back to me—and yet just a few years later, I no longer wish for those people. That erotic longing for those old beloveds, gone.

This longing is different. I’d give my eyeballs, my organs, or steal someone else’s, for Cal. It’s an entirely new order of love. Nothing approaches the hunger I have for Cal’s well-being and his wholeness, and it turns out I can only express it or address it imaginatively. Not even the fiercest mother love can turn time back to undo or prevent the injury already incurred. I’d do anything to change it and I’m powerless to do so. All I can do is write my ass off about how angry I am on his behalf, how devastated I am, and how grateful I am that my beautiful son exists. How proud of him and in love with him I am. I can write that reality. It too exists in the boundless space of poetry. And I discovered in writing through my pain and my fear that any fantasy child, some other would-be Cal, disappears. That conjured being can’t compare to my son. The beauty of my actual boy becomes so starkly apparent that it collapses any imaginative construction of that other boy. My very real Cal is a hero to me just as he is. Writing this book allowed me to see him clearly.

Craig: When it comes to writing about Cal, I feel profoundly uneasy about the idea that I might be, we might be, exposing him. Is it hurtful or naive to inscribe his existence in a way that he cannot yet understand and certainly can’t control or make decisions about? But writing about Cal does help us see him. Because of our son’s injury, we are forever wrestling with the what-ifs. Poetry is the only safe place in our family where we can, as Brenda says, follow those would-be paths to find that they lead us to a son, a life, we don’t recognize or truly wish for. Poetry gives us a place to keep our pain—we don’t say much in these books about all the fun we have, and not because we don’t have it—so that we can keep more of our joy in our lives, in our home.

Brenda: What happened to our baby is one of the most heartbreaking things that can happen to a family, but we are determined to see Cal and to experience him as a great source of love and strength and delight, a force of beauty all his own. He’s not just a boy with a diagnosis; he’s a boy with a fierce loving family who adores him, and he is our Cal, who has a delightfully wily sense of humor and more resilience than any of us. I think all parents need to see and to see reflected the full range of emotions that having a special-needs kid brings. It’s not just doctors, therapists, and paperwork; it’s also poetry and emotion and transformation and joy. One of my greatest hopes for our books is for parents of differently abled or special-needs kids to find them and wrest some comfort and companionship out of reading them, that others will find here the kind of solace, challenge, and nourishment we have always sought—and found—in poetry.


Brenda Shaughnessy
is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). She teaches at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.

Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of two books of poetry, including To Keep Love Blurry (BOA Editions, 2012), and one collection of stories. He works at Publishers Weekly and serves as a poetry editor for the Literary Review.

Saddle Up and Read

by

Arriel Vinson

4.14.21

Caitlin Gooch has always loved horses; she started riding when she was just three years old. When Gooch combined this passion with her deep love of reading, she found an unexpected way to affect the lives of the children in her hometown of Wendell, North Carolina. After Gooch learned that literacy rates in her state were low, she decided to use the horses that had always inspired her to change that. “Horses connect people and get kids excited,” Gooch says. “Why not use that energy to encourage kids to read?”

In 2019 only 36 percent of North Carolina’s fourth-grade students were considered proficient at reading, down from their 2017 score of 39 percent, according to the Nation’s Report Card, a project of the Department of Education that monitors literacy rates. Meanwhile, the North Carolina Child Health Report Card found that, in 2016, only about 41 percent of North Carolina families read to their children daily, down 3 percent from 2011. For many years Gooch had volunteered with local youth groups, including day care centers and organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club. But hearing about North Carolina’s literacy rates, and realizing the children she worked with struggled as well, encouraged her to go a step further. 

In 2017 Gooch teamed up with a local library to give children the opportunity to interact with horses. Through the partnership, children could enter into a drawing for a chance to spend a day at her father’s farm, as long as they checked out three or more books. Once there the children would read books to the horses and feed them. The program, which Gooch named Saddle Up and Read (SUAR), caught on and has been inspiring a love of reading through connection with horses ever since. 

To date Gooch has brought Saddle Up and Read to elementary schools, libraries, childcare centers, church youth groups, and community events—sometimes in full cowgirl attire—to excite children about reading. The organization’s Instagram account, @saddleupandread, captures the joy of children petting horses, book drives, and, of course, masked reading. “Most children we meet haven’t seen horses before,” Gooch has said via Instagram. “It’s always nice to associate horses with books on the first encounter. [It’s] something they will never forget.” As a child on her father’s farm, Gooch found comfort in being surrounded by animals, but especially horses. “When I was younger, I didn’t really notice how different the way I grew up was,” Gooch said in an interview with CNN in 2020. “I didn’t realize that other people didn’t live this way. I’m extremely blessed to have grown up with horses.”

But even with the incentivized program at the local library and other visits to community hubs, Gooch realized she still wasn’t reaching the segment of the population with whom she had hoped to connect. So, in summer 2020 she used her social media to encourage donations for a truck and trailer, which would allow her to visit new areas and invite children to stop by, get a free book, and pet a horse. She can now set up whenever, wherever, and visits neighborhoods all around Wendell—often partnering with local businesses like Huggy Bear’s Pet Market. In the library of books in her trailer, Gooch centers books about Black equestrians, with titles like The True West by Mifflin Lowe and Let ’Er Buck! George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. 

In an interview on The Kelly Clarkson Show in February, Gooch spoke about how although the horse industry is predominantly white, there is a rich history of Black equestrians, and she wants to make sure that children know about it. “It’s really important to me to show that representation,” Gooch said. “When we look at the horse industry, it’s predominantly white. So when I show up, people are like, ‘Wow, I can do this too.’”

Gooch says that books are the most expensive part of the program, and donations help keep Saddle Up and Read running. The SUAR library features donated books from the literacy organization 50 States 50 Books, as well as from book drives hosted by Bearded Bee Brewing Company and other local businesses. Saddle Up and Read also keeps an Amazon wish list of books the group would like to receive, featuring books like Change Sings by inaugural poet Amanda Gorman and Black Equestrian Coloring Book, written by Gooch herself. Gooch’s enthusiasm and energy have inspired celebrity support for Saddle Up and Read from powerhouses including Oprah Winfrey and LeVar Burton.

Though the pandemic rages on, it hasn’t stopped SUAR from reaching children in nearby communities. The portable library, along with Gooch’s passion to close the literacy gap and get children excited about reading, is to thank for the program’s ongoing success. Children still get to interact with horses and browse the library, masks up and books in hand. 

“These little hands will grow into big hands,” Gooch says on an Instagram post of Black children completing a horse puzzle. “If we put books in these little hands now, just imagine what those big hands will create.”  

 

Arriel Vinson is a Tin House YA Scholar and Hoosier who writes about being young, Black, and in search of freedom. Her writing has appeared in Kweli, Catapult, Waxwing, the Rumpus, and other publications.

A young reader finds an attentive audience during a July 2020 farm visit (left); Caitlin Gooch (right), the founder of Saddle Up and Read. (Credit: Courtesy of Caitlin Gooch)

Barbershop Books

by

Christine Ro

6.13.18

Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the nineties, Alvin Irby wasn’t much of a reader. “Reading books for pleasure wasn’t a part of my childhood,” he says. It wasn’t until high school—when Irby “started to understand the political and societal implications of reading,” and more specifically which groups of people tend to be excluded from reading—that the activity became something more than a chore. Today Irby is committed to making books and reading fun for children, in particular black boys—who report some of the lowest reading scores among children in the United States—through Barbershop Books, a literacy program that creates child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops and also trains barbers and other adults to help teach early literacy. 

Irby, who now lives in New York City, began installing shelves of children’s books in Harlem barbershops in 2014. He chose barbershops because he wanted to find black male–centric spaces to promote a love of reading among young black boys. The statistics, after all, are startling: In 2010 the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of seventy of the nation’s largest urban public school systems, reported that while 38 percent of white fourth-grade boys are proficient in reading, the number for black boys of the same age is only 12 percent. Through Barbershop Books, Irby hopes to reach kids before the fourth grade. In the program’s early days, Irby spent his own money to buy books for all ages. “When I put the books in a barbershop, I observed for hours and hours that it was the young kids who were most likely to engage with the books,” he says. He realized that books for readers ages four to eight, a period critical for reading development, seemed to be the most useful. 

Unlike many early reading programs, Barbershop Books focuses not on reading skills but on what Irby calls “reading identity.” This means building boys’ motivation to read and helping them form a self-image as readers. Developing a reading identity is key to increasing literacy, Irby says, and is a different approach than that taken by most schools, which often focus on assessment, test scores, and skills development. The fun is lacking, Irby says, so reading becomes tied up in pressure and judgment rather than pleasure. 

Barbershop Books attributes the low reading proficiency among black boys in part to schools and educators that are not responsive to individual learning styles, as well as to a lack of black men involved in black boys’ early reading experiences. In 2013 the U.S. Department of Education reported that less than 2 percent of teachers were black men. “There are literally young black boys who have never seen a black man reading,” said Irby in a 2017 TED talk, “or never had a black man encourage him to read.” By working with local community partners to organize training for both barbers and parents to teach kids how to read, Barbershop Books works to address this deficit.

Irby and his team stock the barbershops with books that appeal to the kids who visit. A 2013 report from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of  Wisconsin in Madison showed only 10.48 percent of children’s books published that year featured characters of color, and Irby also notes that a significant number of titles about black children revolve around the same few topics, such as slavery. Although such books are important, he says, it is equally important to supplement those books with more lighthearted stories, like Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day and Maribeth Boelts’s Those Shoes—books about kids with whom children can identify. (Irby’s own children’s book, Gross Greg, which he self-published in 2016, is a humorous story about a boy who likes to eat what he calls “delicious little sugars”—his boogers.) While Barbershop Books titles aren’t limited to those about black boys, Irby asks boys what kinds of books they would like to read, allowing them to help with the decision of what to stock. The organization also gives books away: On July 18 it will host a giveaway of three thousand books at the Boys’ Club of New York in East Harlem.

Since its founding Barbershop Books has been adopted by more than a hundred barbershops in twenty-eight cities across the United States and reaches more than four thousand boys each month. In the next three years Irby hopes to raise $1 million to set up reading spaces in eight hundred more barbershops throughout the country. Eventually he’d like to expand to include Latino barbershops and digital initiatives as well. For now Barbershop Books has already made an impact. Irby reports that before he launched the program, 73 percent of barbers he spoke with never saw a boy reading in their shop. Now 64 percent say they’ve seen a boy reading a book in their shop almost every day. Irby believes that regardless of children’s reading abilities, it’s a step in the right direction. “Whether or not kids can read the books,” he says, “even if they’re just looking at the pictures, that’s a positive reading experience.”

 

Christine Ro writes about books regularly for Book Riot and occasionally for Literary Hub, Vice, and other publications.

Three boys reading at Denny Moe’s Superstar Barbershop in Harlem in New York City.

At the Center of Hip-Hop and Poetry

by

LaToya Jordan

4.11.18

What began as a hashtag to celebrate black womanhood, Black Girl Magic quickly leapt off social media streams and into the lexicon of writers, politicians, celebrities, and activists. What is Black Girl Magic? No two people will define it the same, but a new poetry anthology released by Haymarket Books in April, The BreakBeat Poets Volume 2: Black Girl Magic, is allowing black women who grew up in the hip-hop generation to deepen the conversation through their poetry.

Mahogany L. Browne, who edited the anthology with fellow poets Idrissa Simmonds and Jamila Woods, says the book challenges stereotypes about black women. “We’re not allowed nuance; we’re not allowed to be angry and sad and loving—we’re supposed to be strong, stand up for everything,” says Browne. “This is about how we create ourselves, how we re-create ourselves…how we rename ourselves, how we bring our ancestors into the room, and how we invite those that don’t serve us out. Black Girl Magic as a whole is a resilience, a celebration, and a reclamation of the black woman body.”

The idea for the anthology was born a few years ago, when Browne was the featured poet at Louder Than a Bomb, an annual youth poetry festival in Chicago cofounded by poets Kevin Coval and Anna West. Browne read a poem called “Black Girl Magic,” which she wrote specifically for the event, and the audience response was immediate and visceral. “To see a poem hit the air like that,” Browne says, “after that response, I said, ‘This is bigger than me.’” (Browne later performed the poem on a 2016 episode of PBS NewsHour’s “Brief but Spectacular.”) After the festival, she mentioned to Coval that there should be a Black Girl Magic anthology, and a few months later he phoned her to move forward with the idea.

The anthology features more than a hundred poems from new and established voices, including Elizabeth Acevedo, Syreeta McFadden, Morgan Parker, Aracelis Girmay, and Angel Nafis. Poet Patricia Smith, the 2018 winner of the $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, contributed a foreword to the collection. “I relentlessly love my sisters,” she writes. “We have taken back the right to name ourselves.” Each section of the anthology is named after an excerpt from the work of a notable black woman writer or activist. It begins with a section focused on the black woman’s body in all its forms, “Collector of Me,” inspired by poet Sonia Sanchez, and ends with a section centered on joy and resilience, “Jubilee,” inspired by novelist Edwidge Danticat.

The poems in the collection, influenced by the rhythms, lyricism, and expressiveness of hip-hop music and culture, speak to the many dimensions of black womanhood. In “My Beauty,” Justice Ameer writes about gender identity and self-love: “And ain’t that being a Black woman / Being forced to destroy herself / To make a man more comfortable / Me and my beauty stopped looking for him one day / And suddenly / I saw my body / My beauty saw a woman.” In “#SayHerName,” Aja Monet writes about the campaign to remember black women victims of police brutality: “I am a woman carrying other women in my mouth.”

Black Girl Magic continues the work of the first anthology in the series, The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, published by Haymarket Books in 2015 and edited by Coval, along with poets Quraysh Ali Lansana and Nate Marshall. Focusing on black women was the perfect next step in the series, Coval says. “Black women have been and remain at the center of hip-hop culture and poetic practice. This anthology is some of the receipts and a peek into the future. Here are some of the most important and freshest of voices on the planet rock.”

The anthology series will continue to be a space for marginalized voices, and work is already under way on the next volume. “Halal If You Hear Me,” edited by poets Fatimah Asghar and Safia Elhillo, will be focused on writing by Muslim women and LGBTQ Muslims and will be published in 2019.         

 

LaToya Jordan is a writer from Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Twitter @latoyadjordan.

I, Too Arts Collective

by

LaToya Jordan

2.14.18

For nearly ten years the brownstone at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem was silent. Once the home of celebrated Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes, who lived there for twenty years until his death in 1967, the three-story row house sat vacant, its dark stone walls overgrown with ivy, the paint of its once grand interior chipped throughout. The only evidence of the building’s literary history was a small plaque on the facade bearing Hughes’s name and designating it a landmark.

But today, thanks to the I, Too Arts Collective, the brownstone is once again bustling with creativity. On any given day one might hear the voice of a teen writer reciting Hughes’s poem “I look at the world,” or a community member reading at an open mic for the first time, or a distinguished author in conversation about the practice of writing. Established as a nonprofit organization by award-winning author Renée Watson, I, Too provides arts programming in Hughes’s house to underrepresented and marginalized voices. The collective takes its name from Hughes’s famous poem “I, Too,” which opens with the lines, “I, too, sing America. // I am the darker brother.”

“People need spaces where they can seek justice and stand up for what they believe in, spaces where they can be their full selves,” says Watson. “Often they are not able to do that in the world, so I wanted to have a space where they can come and create and engage with their community—that was really important to me.”

Watson, who lives in Harlem, walked past the vacant house for ten years, disappointed that nothing had been done with the space. She was inspired to take action in the summer of 2016, after hearing that Maya Angelou’s Harlem brownstone, located just a ten-minute walk from Hughes’s house, had been sold for $4 million. Determined that another piece of Harlem and African American culture wouldn’t be lost, Watson contacted the owner of Hughes’s brownstone and shared her vision of a space dedicated to preserving the writer’s legacy. The owner also didn’t want to see the building become gentrified, turned into condos or a coffee shop, but told Watson she’d need to come up with a year’s rent to turn her vision into a reality.

Watson, who in addition to publishing several well-received children’s books—including most recently Piecing Me Together (Bloomsbury, 2017)—has years of experience in business and nonprofit arts administration; she established the I, Too Arts Collective in July 2016 and launched #LangstonsLegacy, an online fund-raising campaign to lease the brownstone. In just a few months, with the help of the literary community and private donors, she raised $150,000 toward the lease, renovation, and programming costs. Watson signed a three-year lease in October 2016 and along with the I, Too team and a group of volunteers, cleaned, painted, and restored the building. On February 1, 2017—Hughes’s 115th birthday and the beginning of Black History Month—the Hughes House opened to the public.

I, Too now hosts weekly open hours at the Hughes House, during which the community and tourists can visit the space, walk the same parlor floor Hughes did, and snap photos of his piano and typewriter. Watson says the brownstone is less of a museum, however, and more of a space for people to create. I, Too runs a number of special programs and events at the Hughes House, including creative writing workshops for adults and young people, a recurring poetry salon with an open mic, a monthly social event for writers and artists, and discussions with writers about their process and work. I, Too also rents the space to other artists and nonprofits to hold workshops, readings, and performances. Writers who have visited the brownstone include Kwame Alexander, Tracey Baptiste, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Angela Flournoy, Nikki Grimes, Ellen Hagan, Jason Reynolds, Jacqueline Woodson, and Ibi Zoboi.

Watson and her I, Too colleagues— program director Kendolyn Walker, social media director Jennifer Baker, and graphic designer Ellice Lee, as well as working and honorary boards of directors made up of writers and artists—want to empower artists as well as honor Hughes’s legacy. “I wanted something that would add on to what he left behind,” says Watson. “I think that is a powerful thing, to not just celebrate his work in theory or by reading but also saying, ‘This is what he wrote, this is what he said—what do you want to say, and how are you continuing his legacy?’”

The program closest to Watson’s heart is the Langston Hughes Institute for Young Writers, which hosts writing workshops for young people during school breaks and throughout the summer. Funded by the Ford Foundation, the workshops allow teens to learn about Hughes’s work and share their own poetry. “I always say whenever young people are in the space, that’s when I get emotional and feel like this is why I am doing this work,” Watson says. “What moves me is when I see young people writing and finding their voices and expressing themselves.”

After a successful first year, the collective is working toward its long-term goals, including restoring the second floor of the house to create studio space and a library, as well as raising money to establish a fellowship program for writers. As part of the program, fellows would receive a residency in the Hughes House and hold workshops and readings in return.

The organization’s ultimate goal is to raise enough money to purchase the brownstone. “I want this to be a place that lives far beyond me or anybody involved with it now,” says Watson. “This is not just a trendy thing to do, but a sustainable space with roots in the ground for everyday artists to develop their craft and for established artists to share their stories and their voices.” 

 

LaToya Jordan is a writer from Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Twitter @latoyadjordan.

Renee Watson, founder of the I, Too Arts Collective, next to Hughes’s typewriter.

(Credit: David Flores)

Publishing, Empowering Teen Writers

by

Tara Jayakar

6.14.17

For Chicago teenagers with a passion for writing, there is no shortage of resources. Young Chicago Authors; 826CHI, a branch of the youth writing organization started by writer Dave Eggers; StoryStudio Chicago; and Writopia Lab, among other programs, have been offering writing workshops, open mics, summer camps, and poetry slams for kids throughout the city for decades. But a new organization has a more specific goal in mind for Chicago teens: to offer them hands-on experience in editing and publishing their peers. Launched last year by poet and educator Jennifer Steele, [Y]volve Publishing (YP) is an extension of Revolving Door Arts Foundation, which Steele founded in 2014 to empower and publish young and emerging writers and to get them actively involved in the publishing industry. Steele runs the organization almost exclusively on her own, with some help from a volunteer board that includes writers Fred Sasaki and Kenyatta Rogers. While Steele has other projects in the works for the organization, including workshops for young and new mothers, an anthology about postpartum depression, and a reading series, her primary focus is currently YP and its inaugural project, the Teen Chapbook Series, which features poetry chapbooks written and edited by teens. 

The chapbook series began last summer, when Steele asked four teenagers on the slam poetry team she coaches to each write five poems and then expand that work into a chapbook-length collection. The four young poets—Nyvia Taylor, Semira Truth Garrett, Kai Wright, and Jalen Kobayashi—worked with one another, along with Steele, to edit their poems. “Each book has been a personal journey for these writers, as they explore personal ideas and also think about how to expand the craft of their writing,” says Steele. “Semira, for instance, was really interested in learning how to write short poems. Jalen has learned about truth versus fact when writing a poem. And Nyvia has been writing brave poems that are confronting difficult, personal subjects.” 

The chapbooks, each featuring artwork the poets chose themselves, were published in May. Steele also invited four established poets, including CM Burroughs and Jacob Saenz, to write introductions to the chapbooks. For the young poets, seeing their words in print has had a powerful impact. “When you have a hard copy of something, it’s forever,” says Kobayashi in a video on the press’s website. “As poets, we share our work on social media, but that can only get you so far. Once you actually have that physical copy of all your words on the page, nobody can take that from you.” Wright agrees: “I’m just a little Chicago kid from the West Side, but to be able to put my work out there in a permanent way—these are just my words that are here and nobody can take my story, or my truth, or my life away from me as a result of that.” 

The Teen Chapbook Series will be published annually, and next year’s series will be expanded to include fiction and nonfiction. (Submissions will open this month, and the chapbooks will be released in Spring 2018.) Steele is also in the process of developing a teen editorial board, which will oversee the production of each book in the series from start to finish. “We’re hoping to have a full-fledged publishing program that includes graphic design, marketing, and promotion teams by 2018,” Steele says. Students will create a call for submissions, read and select manuscripts, and then be paired with a more established editor or writer to edit the selected manuscripts. They will also work on every stage of production, from layout and design to promotion. Steele plans for the press to release three to five chapbooks through the series each year and to put out other books as well. This summer she is working with a group of teens to curate, edit, design, and publish a book of poetry and fashion photography centering around the Gwendolyn Brooks centennial, which is being celebrated this year in Chicago. The anthology will be published in October. 

By teaching teens how to publish books, Steele believes she will help equip them with both entrepreneurial and collaborative experience that will be applicable within and beyond the creative industry. By taking on the role of an editor, publisher, or marketing executive, Steele says, the young people involved with the YP will acquire marketable skills before they even graduate high school. She also hopes to reach more teens by bringing YP books into classrooms. Starting in the 2017–2018 school year, she plans to provide the chapbooks to teachers in Chicago schools and help them develop lesson plans based on each book’s content or theme. “We often hear from teachers that they wish they had more books written by teens to share with their students, so we’re hoping this could fill that need,” she says. “As far as I know, there aren’t many collections of poetry being taught in the classroom, let alone collections by teens.” 

Steele’s commitment to empowering teens is partially motivated by her own experiences as a young person. “I didn’t know I could be an editor,” she says. “I thought if I got my English degree, I was just going to be a high school English teacher. But if someone had told me that I could be editing a magazine, I probably would have made different choices. We’re trying to create these experiences for kids at this age so they can make more informed choices about what they’re interested in doing. That’s the underlying point of all of this: creating, through the literary arts, skills that can be transferable to any career path they’re interested in.”

Tara Jayakar is the founder and editor of Raptor Editing. She lives in New York City.

[Y]volve Publishing’s poets (from left) Semira Truth Garrett, Jalen Kobayashi, Kai Wright, and Nyvia Taylor.

(Credit: Kikomo.p Imagery)

Amanda Gorman Named National Youth Poet Laureate

by

Maggie Millner

4.27.17

Last night in New York City, at a historic ceremony at Gracie Mansion, nineteen-year-old Amanda Gorman of Los Angeles was named the first national youth poet laureate. The unprecedented title, to be awarded annually, honors a teen poet who demonstrates not only extraordinary literary talent but also a proven record of community engagement and youth leadership.

For Gorman, poetry and civic outreach aren’t separate interests. The Harvard University freshman knows firsthand that creative writing can build confidence and a sense of community among young people whose voices are often underrepresented in mainstream dialogue. In 2016 she founded One Pen One Page, a nonprofit organization that provides an “online platform and creative writing programs for student storytellers to change the world.” She continues to serve as the organization’s executive director.

Gorman’s own writing often addresses the intersections of race, feminism, and adolescence, as well as the changing landscape of her native Los Angeles. For both her poetry and her advocacy, Gorman has been recognized by Forbes, the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, the YoungArts Foundation, and the OZY Genius Awards. She has also performed on The Today Show, ABC Family, and Nickelodeon News, and helped introduce Hillary Clinton at the 2017 Global Leadership Awards.

“For me, being able to stand on a stage as a spoken word poet, as someone who overcame a speech impediment, as the descendent of slaves who would have been prosecuted for reading and writing, I think it really symbolizes how, by pursuing a passion and never giving up, you can go as far as your wildest dreams,” said Gorman at the ceremony on Wednesday evening. “This represents such a significant moment because never in my opinion have the arts been more important than now.”

Amanda Gorman, national youth poet laureate.
 

The event represented the culmination of years of work by arts organizations across the country. In 2009 literary arts nonprofit Urban Word NYC, in partnership with the New York City Campaign Finance Board and Mayor’s Office, began bestowing the annual title of New York City youth poet laureate on one visionary poet between the ages of fourteen and nineteen. Michael Cirelli, executive director of Urban Word NYC, says the program was founded on a belief that “young poets deserve to be in spaces of power, privilege, and governance, and to have their voices front and center of the sociopolitical dialogue happening in our city.”

Since the inception of New York’s youth poet laureate program, arts and literacy organizations in over thirty-five cities have followed suit, launching their own youth laureateship positions. As it spread nationally, the program garnered support from the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, and PEN Center USA, among other major poetry organizations. Finally, in 2016, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities partnered with Urban Word to bring the program to the national level.

Last July a jury of prominent poets, including U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, Brooklyn poet laureate Tina Chang, and Academy of American Poets executive director Jen Benka, narrowed the pool of local laureates down to five national finalists. Poets were evaluated on the caliber and subject matter of their poems, as well as their commitment to serving their communities through volunteer and advocacy work, and each finalist was selected to represent a geographic region of the country (Northeast, Southeast, South, Midwest, and West). Along with Gorman, Hajjar Baban of Detroit, Nkosi Nkululeko of New York City, Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay of Nashville, and Andrew White of Houston were named the first annual regional laureates and finalists for the inaugural national youth poet laureateship.

Each finalist received a book deal with independent press Penmanship Books, which published Gorman’s first poetry collection, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough, in 2015. Over the past year, the finalists have also had the opportunity to perform for large audiences at renowned venues, including the Poetry Foundation, the Kennedy Center, and the White House. As the national youth poet laureate, Gorman will continue to give readings and participate in events across the country throughout her yearlong term.

“The role of poetry, especially in marginalized communities, is to provide a voice to those who are traditionally silenced,” says Cirelli, “and the best way to effect social change is to provide platforms for youth to tell their stories. We hope to leverage our work to allow these diverse stories to be told in spaces that have historically omitted youth voices, and to energize and engage the issues that they are most passionate about.”

The ceremony at Gracie Mansion featured performances by three of the finalists, as well as a roster of current and former New York City youth poets laureate. The performers were introduced by a group of acclaimed poets, including American Book Prize winner Kimiko Hahn and four-time National Poetry Slam champion Patricia Smith. Nkululeko recited a poem about his hair, a metaphor through which he discussed his relationship with his mother and collective African American history. Baban, who was named runner-up for the national title, recited a sestina on language, family, and her Muslim name. Finally, Gorman delivered a poem about how her speech impediment led her to discover writing.

“I am so grateful to be part of this cohort of young creatives who are taking up their pens to have a voice for what is right and what is just,” Gorman said in her acceptance speech. “I don’t just want to write—I want to do right as well.”

 

Maggie Millner is Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana and Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.  
 

Q&A: Yang Inspires Young Readers

by

Dana Isokawa

2.15.17

In 2008 the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council, and the nonprofit organization Every Child a Reader established the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature position to celebrate and promote books for children and young adult readers. The current ambassador, graphic novelist and recent MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient Gene Luen Yang, started his term in January 2016. Yang has devoted much of his work to his Reading Without Walls Challenge, which encourages kids to read books with unfamiliar characters, topics, and formats. Yang is the perfect advocate for such an undertaking: His popular graphic novels American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints have pushed against cultural stereotypes and blurred the lines between the comic-book and book-publishing industries. More than halfway through his two-year term, Yang spoke about his work as the ambassador.

What inspired you to come up with the Reading Without Walls Challenge?
We want kids to read outside their comfort zones, and we want them to do it in three ways. One: We want them to read about characters who don’t look like them or live like them. Two: We want them to read about topics they don’t know anything about. And three: We want them to read books in different formats. So if they normally read only graphic novels for fun, we want them to try a chapter book, and if they read only chapter books for fun, we want them to try a graphic novel.

What are you planning next?
Right now we’re trying to promote the Reading Without Walls program. We’ve put together a bunch of downloadable materials: recommended reading lists, posters, and certificates of completion. We’re hoping librarians, booksellers, and teachers will download, print, and use these materials to promote the initiative with their classes. And we’re trying to do a wider national push for the summer.

What else is involved in the national ambassador position?
It’s pretty flexible. I have a few speaking engagements—I was at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., in the fall, which was a ton of fun. I’m going to go again this year, and I’ve done a few school visits, some of them in person, some of them over Skype. We’ve tried some online stuff. I have a video podcast called the Reading Without Walls podcast—it’s just me having conversations about children’s books with people I really like. I had one that came out with Lois Lowry, who wrote The Giver; another one with Patrick Ness, who wrote A Monster Calls. I also do a monthly column at Book Riot about making comics, and we’re probably going to start another podcast this year.

Why do you think it’s important for kids to read books with characters who don’t look or live like them?
There are studies that show that fiction in particular builds empathy—that when you read about characters who don’t look or live like you, you begin to understand them a little bit better. You understand what makes you similar and how vast the differences are, and it helps you to be a little bit more compassionate toward people who are different from you. Right now it seems like—not just in America, but around the world—we need a little more empathy. And I include myself in that too. I worry about how technology affects us. Just recently with the presidential election, there was all of [this research] about how Facebook basically shows you stuff you like to read. And then even beyond that, you can literally read about yourself all day. You could just fill your whole day with pure narcissism because of digital media. And I think fiction is the exact opposite of that. Well-written fiction pulls you out of your own mind space and helps you see into the thoughts and lives of somebody else.

Can you think of a book where you were reading without walls as a kid?
As an Asian American kid growing up in America in the eighties, almost every book that I read was outside of my own walls, because they were about kids that were part of the majority culture. I do think that maybe gender-wise there were books that pushed me outside of my walls. Like almost every kid in the eighties, I loved Beverly Cleary and I loved the Ramona books. I think as a character Ramona really broke stereotypes and cultural norms about the way little girls should act, because she was creative and rambunctious and kind of loud. And there was a lot of overlap in the way she saw the world and the way I saw the world as a little kid. So I think that that pushed me out. And there were also books that mirrored my life. I started collecting comics in the fifth grade and got really obsessed with superheroes. I wonder if part of that obsession comes from the fact that these superheroes negotiated two different identities—Superman wasn’t just Superman, he was also Clark Kent. In some ways that mirrored my own reality since I had a Chinese name at home and an American name at school; I lived under two different sets of expectations. And Superman is actually an immigrant too—he deals with the cultures of both Krypton and America.

Have your experiences as a graphic novelist informed the challenge, especially the part about reading in different formats?
Yes, absolutely. I think in America, up until pretty recently, the comic-book market and the book market were really two separate entities. They had their own stores, distribution systems, norms, and readerships. It’s only in the last ten or fifteen years that they’ve started working together. I really think I’ve been a beneficiary of that merging, and it’s exciting to see. It’s exciting to see how publishers and authors who are prominent in one area are starting to embrace the work from the authors in the other area. More and more we’re seeing publishers who typically only publish prose books start to add graphic novels to their list. On the other side, we’re starting to see comic-book publishers recruit writers who are primarily known for their prose, like Ta-Nehisi Coates over at Marvel.

Do you think that’s because people’s opinions or the form itself is changing? Can you diagnose why that shift is happening?
I think there are three prominent comic cultures in the world. There’s the American one; there’s an Asian one that’s centered primarily around Japan, and there’s a European one centered around France and French-speaking Belgium. And in those other two cultures, comics have been prominent for a long time. If you go to Japan, there will be people of every age and gender reading graphic novels and manga on the subways. In France, it’s the same way: They televise the comic awards shows. In both of those cultures, it’s always been a big deal. It’s only in America that comics have been in this backwater. And that really goes back to the 1950s when the child psychologist Fredric Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent, in which he argued that comic books cause juvenile delinquency. The United States Congress took it very seriously and had a series of congressional hearings where they called comic-book authors, publishers, and artists to Washington, D.C., to testify to see if comics actually caused juvenile delinquency. These hearings lasted for a few weeks, but didn’t end conclusively—there was no congressional decision that came out of it. But they damaged the reputation of comics in the eyes of the American public, and that lasted for decades. That didn’t happen in Japan or France. I feel what happened in Japan and France was a much more natural development of the medium, whereas in America it was stunted. It wasn’t until the last couple of decades that people have forgotten about what happened in the fifties. People have finally started to realize that comics don’t cause juvenile delinquency.

What draws you to working with and writing for young people?
I think it’s kind of my natural storytelling voice. When I first started writing comics, I was a self-publisher. I was working at a tiny scale. I would Xerox comics and I’d try to sell them at shows. I’d sell probably a dozen or two—tiny scale. And when you’re working at that level, you don’t think about demographics. I wasn’t actually categorized as a young-adult author until I signed with First Second, my primary publisher. They come out of the book world, not the comic-book world. In the book world age demographics are huge; that’s how booksellers decide where to shelve their books and how to sell them. So I was categorized there. It’s not something I had in my head when I first started, but I think it sits well—probably because I was a high-school teacher for a long time. I taught high-school computer science for seventeen years, so I was just surrounded by teenage voices, and a lot of that just bleeds into you. When you spend so much time in the hallways of a school, the voices of those hallways just kind of get into you.

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Academy Establishes Web Resource for Teen Poets

6.18.09

Yesterday, the Academy of American Poets launched a new online poetry resource targeted at teenage readers and writers of poetry. The initiative was conceived after the organization conducted a survey of visitors to its Web site and found that 75 percent of users developed an interest in poetry before the age of eighteen.

The new home page features writing resources and a collection of poems for teens, as well as links to the organization’s discussion forum and a comprehensive index of Web sites and reference materials for poets. A “Leave Your Mark” feature prompts teen users to share indispensable lines of poetry, upcoming events, and to create virtual poetry notebooks of their own design featuring poems, writer profiles, and interviews culled from the Academy’s site.

Young writers are also prompted to sign up for the “Street Team” newsletter, which will notify them of poetry projects and contests in which they could participate. Planned programs include the Free Verse Photo Project, in which a line of poetry is written using a temporary medium and photographed before it disappears, the National Poetry Writing Month challenge and pledge drive, and Poem In Your Pocket Day.

The home page initiative was funded by close to five hundred Academy members, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, which supports advancement of artistic inquiry and scholarship, and the graduating class of 2008 from Holmdel High School in New Jersey.

A New Center for Black Poetics

by

Tara Jayakar

8.17.16

From late nineteenth-century poet Paul Laurence Dunbar to Harlem Renaissance icon Langston Hughes to contemporary poetry stars Rita Dove and Toi Derricotte, the influence of African American poets on America’s literary culture cannot be overstated. But until recently there was no center that had significant institutional support and was specifically dedicated to sharing and studying the legacy of African American poetry.* Earlier this year, poets Dawn Lundy Martin, Terrance Hayes, and Yona Harvey decided it was high time to start one. The trio launched the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics (CAAPP) as a creative think tank to spark conversation and collaboration among poets and other artists, and to promote and archive the work of African American poets for future generations.

“We recognized that there was this huge impact that African American and African diasporic poets were making on American arts and letters,” says Martin, who codirects the center alongside Hayes. “We wanted there to be a place where we could really think and work through what that means.” Housed at the University of Pittsburgh, where both Martin and Hayes teach in the MFA writing program, the center held its first event in March—a set of conversations and readings about race, poetry, and the humanities—and will host similar events throughout the academic year. Its first course on African American poetry and poetics, led by Lauren Russell, the assistant director of CAAPP and an English professor, will be offered to undergraduate and graduate students during the 2017–2018 academic year and will feature visiting speakers each week. Hayes and Martin also plan to launch a residency and fellowship program, through which poets, artists, and scholars can work at the center for periods between a month and a year.

Part of CAAPP’s core mission is to archive and document the work of African American poets, which will be accomplished through both a physical collection of books and an online archive of lectures, readings, and discussions. While organizations like Cave Canem create space to nurture new work by African American poets, and other university centers such as Medgar Evers College’s Center for Black Literature and Chicago State University’s Gwendolyn Brooks Center work to promote black literature, CAAPP will focus specifically on the research and scholarship of black poetics, particularly as it relates to historical, artistic, and cultural repression, as well as corresponding social justice movements. “Cave Canem is twenty years old, and there still hasn’t been a large body of work about how it came into being or archival work around it,” says Hayes. “Our organizations historically haven’t had an opportunity to take care of our own information, to build our own insights around that work…. Now we are in a position to be our own historians and our own archivists, and write our own biographies about the importance of these roots.”

The University of Pittsburgh has long been a home for the work of African American poets. The university press, with editor Ed Ochester at the helm, has published notable titles by both emerging and established African American poets, recently Derricotte, Ross Gay, Rickey Laurentiis, Nate Marshall, and Afaa Michael Weaver. Hayes and Martin hope to work with the press on a book prize, and harness other university resources. “What a university can do is provide infrastructure, in a way that’s just not set up in most sectors of our society,” says Hayes. “Infrastructure and research capabilities.” The pair have enlisted faculty from other departments, including English and Africana Studies, to advise CAAPP and possibly teach future courses. “We think of ourselves as a start-up,” says Martin. “And like innovators in tech, we want to be open and inclusive as we generate new ideas about what it means to work in the fields of African American poetry and poetics. This seems especially important in these trying and divisive times.”

A significant part of CAAPP’s work will also intersect with the university’s MFA program. Graduate writing students will be able to take courses offered by the center and have the opportunity to help curate, design, and teach these courses. This goes hand in hand with how Hayes sees the MFA as an opportunity to teach students the tools and skills needed to hold positions of power in poetry and arts organizations. “A person who is interested in getting an MFA and being a poet can learn how to live in the world, whether they are directing centers or working as librarians, archivists, or critics,” says Hayes. “Just to alert and inspire a poet to do that is a possibility. Maybe you want to run a press or be an editor of a press. I don’t see why the MFA can’t be an opportunity to begin that conversation, as opposed to assuming that all you can do is write or teach.”

*Editor’s Note: After this article went to print, it was brought to our attention that a center dedicated to studying African American poetry was already established before the launch of CAAPP. The Furious Flower Poetry Center, housed at James Madison University and founded by Joanne Gabbin, has been cultivating and promoting African American poetry since 1994. We regret the error.

 

Hayes and Martin hope that the center will also help make the university’s MFA program a more welcoming space for writers of color, an important effort in light of increased discussion about race and diversity in MFA programs. For Martin, this means creating and maintaining a space of cultural inclusion. “Pittsburgh is a place where there are other students of color, and the graduate faculty is extremely diverse. There’s already some understanding between folks who are there, so you can start from a place of not having to work through your values and struggle to articulate your cultural perspective.”

The CAAPP directors plan to offer courses that intersect with visual art and music, in order to explore how thinking across disciplines can parallel thinking across cultures and perspectives. “Certainly, we feel like if anyone is prepared to build those new conversations, it would be African American poets and poets of color in general,” says Hayes, adding that CAAPP aims to include non-black people of color and other marginalized communities in the conversation. “We talk about collage and hybridity—that’s what people of color are. [We’re] not thinking about segregation, not thinking about fences around what we do, but looking across those bridges, saying, ‘Well, how are these people across the street interested in what I’m doing?’ even if they’re not poets. They might be architects, they might be scientists.”

Moving forward, the center will hold a community workshop, reading, and exhibition from November 9 to November 11 on poetry and politics titled “Black Poets Speak Out,” featuring Jericho Brown, Mahogany Browne, and Amanda Johnston. The directors also hope to host a reading by emerging women and trans poets. Martin and Hayes are optimistic about the social impact of the center’s work. “As far as I’m concerned,” says Martin, “especially given the state of violence in this country—violence against queer people, violence against black people, violence against women—it makes sense to take up things like African American literature, African American culture, African American history, African American poetry and art as a part of making the world better.”

Tara Jayakar is the founder and editor of Raptor Editing. She lives in New York City.

Q&A: Thomas’s App for Young Readers

by

Jennifer Baker

6.14.17

In the summer of 2014, eighteen-year-old Kaya Thomas launched We Read Too, an app that offers a comprehensive database of multicultural books for young readers. Thomas had been frustrated with the difficulty of finding books by and about people of color in libraries and bookstores, so she designed and wrote the code for the app (she recently graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in computer science), which now has information on hundreds of books and more than fifteen thousand users. “I knew that if my app had even helped one person feel represented and showed them that their stories are being told too,” wrote Thomas in a piece at Medium about starting the app, “I had done my job.” Word spread further about We Read Too in March after Thomas launched an Indiegogo campaign to expand the app and raised $15,000. In the next several months, Thomas plans to launch a website for We Read Too and expand its catalog to more than a thousand books. As work on the app progresses, Thomas spoke about her larger mission and hopes for We Read Too. 

How has the We Read Too app evolved over the years?
When I first released We Read Too, it had a directory that included 300 children’s and young adult titles. Each title had a detail page where you could view the book cover, title, author, and description. There was also a suggestion feature where users could send me titles they thought should be included. Since then the directory has expanded to more than 630 titles, and you can search by author or title. You can now share any of the books via text message, e-mail, or social media, and you can view the book on Safari to purchase it. There’s also a discovery feature now that allows you to see one random book at a time so you don’t have to search through the entire directory.

Was it a purposeful decision to include both self-published and traditionally published books in this list? 
I wanted to include self-published works because it can be hard for those authors to get readers to discover their work. A lot of authors who are self-published have reached out to me in hopes that We Read Too can be a place for them to get more reader discovery for their work. I know that for authors of color it can be hard to get into the publishing world, so I want to support those who haven’t gone through the traditional routes. I want all authors of color to have their work highlighted in We Read Too, regardless of how they got their work out there.

Do you have plans to include adult fiction in the app?
I eventually do want to include adult fiction in the app, but it would be a larger undertaking because there are so many different genres within that category. I want to make sure I have a significant number of titles in each genre before I add them to the app. 

We Read Too is free. Do you think you will ever charge for it so you can continue updates and expansion? 
We Read Too will always be free for individual users. I never want to charge users to access the directory of titles because that would be counterintuitive toward the mission. I want titles written by people of color to be easier to discover and all in one place, not blocked by a paywall. I want users to discover titles they can share with the young people in their lives and community. I want users to know that these titles exist and, more specifically, for users who are people of color, I want them to see that there are authors who share their background and are creating work that reflects their culture in some way.    

Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional, the creator and host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, the panel organizer for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, and the social medial director and a writing instructor for Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. She is the editor of the forthcoming short story anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life (Atria Books, 2018).

Kaya Thomas

(Credit: Faith Rotich)

Q&A: Nicole Sealey Leads Cave Canem

by

Tayari Jones

4.12.17

Cave Canem was established by Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte in 1996 to nurture black poets both on the page and in the publishing marketplace. The Brooklyn, New York–based organization’s many programs include writing workshops, master classes, a reading series, publication prizes, and an annual retreat, which brings together more than fifty poets, or “fellows,” each year. In January Nicole Sealey, previously Cave Canem’s programs director, became the organization’s new executive director. A veteran arts administrator (including a previous role as the assistant director of Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program), Sealey is also a poet; her first full-length collection, Ordinary Beast, will be published by Ecco in September. A couple of months into her new position, Sealey spoke about the future of Cave Canem.

Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship to Cave Canem?
Almost ten years ago I participated in Cave Canem’s eight-week fall workshop in New York City, facilitated by Marilyn Nelson. I was a very young writer and it ended up being a formative experience in my life. We got serious about craft and made lifelong connections in the process. I’ve met many of my closest friends through Cave Canem, the closest of all being my husband, John Murillo. The very least I can do for an organization that has served me well for the last decade is to return the gesture. 

How does being a writer influence the way you will lead the organization?
Cave Canem has always had a “poets first” philosophy, which has served the organization well for the last twenty-plus years. Remember, the organization was founded by rock-star poets and directed for the past decade by Alison Meyers, also a poet. In that tradition, I plan to lead with both head and heart, which are the qualities I value most in poetry. 

What’s ahead for Cave Canem and for you as the new executive director?
In May we’ll be capping off our twentieth-anniversary year with Cave Canem 20/20: A Panoramic Vision of Black Poetry, a two-and-a-half day poetry forum at Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn. The forum will offer readings, skill-building panels, artist conversations, and more. I’m also looking forward to my first retreat as executive director. The retreat takes place in June at the University of Pittsburgh in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. It’s our flagship program, and where, as Harryette Mullen says, “black poets, individually and collectively, can inspire and be inspired by others, relieved of any obligation to explain or defend their blackness.”

So much has changed since Cave Canem faculty member Elizabeth Alexander recited “Praise Song for the Day,” the inaugural poem for Barack Obama in 2009. What do you see as the role of Cave Canem, and poetry more broadly, in the new political climate?
“So much has changed” is a very gracious way to describe the political climate in which we now find ourselves. In “Praise Song for the Day,” the speaker asks, “What if the mightiest word is love?” I have no doubt that it is love, but the new administration would have me believe that the mightiest word is fear or, worse yet, the president’s name. It is neither. It is love. And what is love if not a society based on justice and equality? With this in mind, the role of Cave Canem in particular, and poetry in general, is and will be to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. With love. Bigly. 

Are there any outreach programs on tap to connect poetry with readers?
Cave Canem’s Poets Tour, a nonprofit speakers bureau, connects national audiences with Cave Canem fellows through readings and workshops. This year we hope to increase the number of participating fellows and reach out to presenting institutions, including high schools, universities, museums, libraries, and prisons. We want to bring black poets to diverse communities.  

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.         

Nicole Sealey

(Credit: Murray Greenfield )

Publishing, Empowering Teen Writers

by

Tara Jayakar

6.14.17

For Chicago teenagers with a passion for writing, there is no shortage of resources. Young Chicago Authors; 826CHI, a branch of the youth writing organization started by writer Dave Eggers; StoryStudio Chicago; and Writopia Lab, among other programs, have been offering writing workshops, open mics, summer camps, and poetry slams for kids throughout the city for decades. But a new organization has a more specific goal in mind for Chicago teens: to offer them hands-on experience in editing and publishing their peers. Launched last year by poet and educator Jennifer Steele, [Y]volve Publishing (YP) is an extension of Revolving Door Arts Foundation, which Steele founded in 2014 to empower and publish young and emerging writers and to get them actively involved in the publishing industry. Steele runs the organization almost exclusively on her own, with some help from a volunteer board that includes writers Fred Sasaki and Kenyatta Rogers. While Steele has other projects in the works for the organization, including workshops for young and new mothers, an anthology about postpartum depression, and a reading series, her primary focus is currently YP and its inaugural project, the Teen Chapbook Series, which features poetry chapbooks written and edited by teens. 

The chapbook series began last summer, when Steele asked four teenagers on the slam poetry team she coaches to each write five poems and then expand that work into a chapbook-length collection. The four young poets—Nyvia Taylor, Semira Truth Garrett, Kai Wright, and Jalen Kobayashi—worked with one another, along with Steele, to edit their poems. “Each book has been a personal journey for these writers, as they explore personal ideas and also think about how to expand the craft of their writing,” says Steele. “Semira, for instance, was really interested in learning how to write short poems. Jalen has learned about truth versus fact when writing a poem. And Nyvia has been writing brave poems that are confronting difficult, personal subjects.” 

The chapbooks, each featuring artwork the poets chose themselves, were published in May. Steele also invited four established poets, including CM Burroughs and Jacob Saenz, to write introductions to the chapbooks. For the young poets, seeing their words in print has had a powerful impact. “When you have a hard copy of something, it’s forever,” says Kobayashi in a video on the press’s website. “As poets, we share our work on social media, but that can only get you so far. Once you actually have that physical copy of all your words on the page, nobody can take that from you.” Wright agrees: “I’m just a little Chicago kid from the West Side, but to be able to put my work out there in a permanent way—these are just my words that are here and nobody can take my story, or my truth, or my life away from me as a result of that.” 

The Teen Chapbook Series will be published annually, and next year’s series will be expanded to include fiction and nonfiction. (Submissions will open this month, and the chapbooks will be released in Spring 2018.) Steele is also in the process of developing a teen editorial board, which will oversee the production of each book in the series from start to finish. “We’re hoping to have a full-fledged publishing program that includes graphic design, marketing, and promotion teams by 2018,” Steele says. Students will create a call for submissions, read and select manuscripts, and then be paired with a more established editor or writer to edit the selected manuscripts. They will also work on every stage of production, from layout and design to promotion. Steele plans for the press to release three to five chapbooks through the series each year and to put out other books as well. This summer she is working with a group of teens to curate, edit, design, and publish a book of poetry and fashion photography centering around the Gwendolyn Brooks centennial, which is being celebrated this year in Chicago. The anthology will be published in October. 

By teaching teens how to publish books, Steele believes she will help equip them with both entrepreneurial and collaborative experience that will be applicable within and beyond the creative industry. By taking on the role of an editor, publisher, or marketing executive, Steele says, the young people involved with the YP will acquire marketable skills before they even graduate high school. She also hopes to reach more teens by bringing YP books into classrooms. Starting in the 2017–2018 school year, she plans to provide the chapbooks to teachers in Chicago schools and help them develop lesson plans based on each book’s content or theme. “We often hear from teachers that they wish they had more books written by teens to share with their students, so we’re hoping this could fill that need,” she says. “As far as I know, there aren’t many collections of poetry being taught in the classroom, let alone collections by teens.” 

Steele’s commitment to empowering teens is partially motivated by her own experiences as a young person. “I didn’t know I could be an editor,” she says. “I thought if I got my English degree, I was just going to be a high school English teacher. But if someone had told me that I could be editing a magazine, I probably would have made different choices. We’re trying to create these experiences for kids at this age so they can make more informed choices about what they’re interested in doing. That’s the underlying point of all of this: creating, through the literary arts, skills that can be transferable to any career path they’re interested in.”

Tara Jayakar is the founder and editor of Raptor Editing. She lives in New York City.

[Y]volve Publishing’s poets (from left) Semira Truth Garrett, Jalen Kobayashi, Kai Wright, and Nyvia Taylor.

(Credit: Kikomo.p Imagery)

A New Center for Black Poetics

by

Tara Jayakar

8.17.16

From late nineteenth-century poet Paul Laurence Dunbar to Harlem Renaissance icon Langston Hughes to contemporary poetry stars Rita Dove and Toi Derricotte, the influence of African American poets on America’s literary culture cannot be overstated. But until recently there was no center that had significant institutional support and was specifically dedicated to sharing and studying the legacy of African American poetry.* Earlier this year, poets Dawn Lundy Martin, Terrance Hayes, and Yona Harvey decided it was high time to start one. The trio launched the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics (CAAPP) as a creative think tank to spark conversation and collaboration among poets and other artists, and to promote and archive the work of African American poets for future generations.

“We recognized that there was this huge impact that African American and African diasporic poets were making on American arts and letters,” says Martin, who codirects the center alongside Hayes. “We wanted there to be a place where we could really think and work through what that means.” Housed at the University of Pittsburgh, where both Martin and Hayes teach in the MFA writing program, the center held its first event in March—a set of conversations and readings about race, poetry, and the humanities—and will host similar events throughout the academic year. Its first course on African American poetry and poetics, led by Lauren Russell, the assistant director of CAAPP and an English professor, will be offered to undergraduate and graduate students during the 2017–2018 academic year and will feature visiting speakers each week. Hayes and Martin also plan to launch a residency and fellowship program, through which poets, artists, and scholars can work at the center for periods between a month and a year.

Part of CAAPP’s core mission is to archive and document the work of African American poets, which will be accomplished through both a physical collection of books and an online archive of lectures, readings, and discussions. While organizations like Cave Canem create space to nurture new work by African American poets, and other university centers such as Medgar Evers College’s Center for Black Literature and Chicago State University’s Gwendolyn Brooks Center work to promote black literature, CAAPP will focus specifically on the research and scholarship of black poetics, particularly as it relates to historical, artistic, and cultural repression, as well as corresponding social justice movements. “Cave Canem is twenty years old, and there still hasn’t been a large body of work about how it came into being or archival work around it,” says Hayes. “Our organizations historically haven’t had an opportunity to take care of our own information, to build our own insights around that work…. Now we are in a position to be our own historians and our own archivists, and write our own biographies about the importance of these roots.”

The University of Pittsburgh has long been a home for the work of African American poets. The university press, with editor Ed Ochester at the helm, has published notable titles by both emerging and established African American poets, recently Derricotte, Ross Gay, Rickey Laurentiis, Nate Marshall, and Afaa Michael Weaver. Hayes and Martin hope to work with the press on a book prize, and harness other university resources. “What a university can do is provide infrastructure, in a way that’s just not set up in most sectors of our society,” says Hayes. “Infrastructure and research capabilities.” The pair have enlisted faculty from other departments, including English and Africana Studies, to advise CAAPP and possibly teach future courses. “We think of ourselves as a start-up,” says Martin. “And like innovators in tech, we want to be open and inclusive as we generate new ideas about what it means to work in the fields of African American poetry and poetics. This seems especially important in these trying and divisive times.”

A significant part of CAAPP’s work will also intersect with the university’s MFA program. Graduate writing students will be able to take courses offered by the center and have the opportunity to help curate, design, and teach these courses. This goes hand in hand with how Hayes sees the MFA as an opportunity to teach students the tools and skills needed to hold positions of power in poetry and arts organizations. “A person who is interested in getting an MFA and being a poet can learn how to live in the world, whether they are directing centers or working as librarians, archivists, or critics,” says Hayes. “Just to alert and inspire a poet to do that is a possibility. Maybe you want to run a press or be an editor of a press. I don’t see why the MFA can’t be an opportunity to begin that conversation, as opposed to assuming that all you can do is write or teach.”

*Editor’s Note: After this article went to print, it was brought to our attention that a center dedicated to studying African American poetry was already established before the launch of CAAPP. The Furious Flower Poetry Center, housed at James Madison University and founded by Joanne Gabbin, has been cultivating and promoting African American poetry since 1994. We regret the error.

 

Hayes and Martin hope that the center will also help make the university’s MFA program a more welcoming space for writers of color, an important effort in light of increased discussion about race and diversity in MFA programs. For Martin, this means creating and maintaining a space of cultural inclusion. “Pittsburgh is a place where there are other students of color, and the graduate faculty is extremely diverse. There’s already some understanding between folks who are there, so you can start from a place of not having to work through your values and struggle to articulate your cultural perspective.”

The CAAPP directors plan to offer courses that intersect with visual art and music, in order to explore how thinking across disciplines can parallel thinking across cultures and perspectives. “Certainly, we feel like if anyone is prepared to build those new conversations, it would be African American poets and poets of color in general,” says Hayes, adding that CAAPP aims to include non-black people of color and other marginalized communities in the conversation. “We talk about collage and hybridity—that’s what people of color are. [We’re] not thinking about segregation, not thinking about fences around what we do, but looking across those bridges, saying, ‘Well, how are these people across the street interested in what I’m doing?’ even if they’re not poets. They might be architects, they might be scientists.”

Moving forward, the center will hold a community workshop, reading, and exhibition from November 9 to November 11 on poetry and politics titled “Black Poets Speak Out,” featuring Jericho Brown, Mahogany Browne, and Amanda Johnston. The directors also hope to host a reading by emerging women and trans poets. Martin and Hayes are optimistic about the social impact of the center’s work. “As far as I’m concerned,” says Martin, “especially given the state of violence in this country—violence against queer people, violence against black people, violence against women—it makes sense to take up things like African American literature, African American culture, African American history, African American poetry and art as a part of making the world better.”

Tara Jayakar is the founder and editor of Raptor Editing. She lives in New York City.

Publishing, Empowering Teen Writers

by

Tara Jayakar

6.14.17

For Chicago teenagers with a passion for writing, there is no shortage of resources. Young Chicago Authors; 826CHI, a branch of the youth writing organization started by writer Dave Eggers; StoryStudio Chicago; and Writopia Lab, among other programs, have been offering writing workshops, open mics, summer camps, and poetry slams for kids throughout the city for decades. But a new organization has a more specific goal in mind for Chicago teens: to offer them hands-on experience in editing and publishing their peers. Launched last year by poet and educator Jennifer Steele, [Y]volve Publishing (YP) is an extension of Revolving Door Arts Foundation, which Steele founded in 2014 to empower and publish young and emerging writers and to get them actively involved in the publishing industry. Steele runs the organization almost exclusively on her own, with some help from a volunteer board that includes writers Fred Sasaki and Kenyatta Rogers. While Steele has other projects in the works for the organization, including workshops for young and new mothers, an anthology about postpartum depression, and a reading series, her primary focus is currently YP and its inaugural project, the Teen Chapbook Series, which features poetry chapbooks written and edited by teens. 

The chapbook series began last summer, when Steele asked four teenagers on the slam poetry team she coaches to each write five poems and then expand that work into a chapbook-length collection. The four young poets—Nyvia Taylor, Semira Truth Garrett, Kai Wright, and Jalen Kobayashi—worked with one another, along with Steele, to edit their poems. “Each book has been a personal journey for these writers, as they explore personal ideas and also think about how to expand the craft of their writing,” says Steele. “Semira, for instance, was really interested in learning how to write short poems. Jalen has learned about truth versus fact when writing a poem. And Nyvia has been writing brave poems that are confronting difficult, personal subjects.” 

The chapbooks, each featuring artwork the poets chose themselves, were published in May. Steele also invited four established poets, including CM Burroughs and Jacob Saenz, to write introductions to the chapbooks. For the young poets, seeing their words in print has had a powerful impact. “When you have a hard copy of something, it’s forever,” says Kobayashi in a video on the press’s website. “As poets, we share our work on social media, but that can only get you so far. Once you actually have that physical copy of all your words on the page, nobody can take that from you.” Wright agrees: “I’m just a little Chicago kid from the West Side, but to be able to put my work out there in a permanent way—these are just my words that are here and nobody can take my story, or my truth, or my life away from me as a result of that.” 

The Teen Chapbook Series will be published annually, and next year’s series will be expanded to include fiction and nonfiction. (Submissions will open this month, and the chapbooks will be released in Spring 2018.) Steele is also in the process of developing a teen editorial board, which will oversee the production of each book in the series from start to finish. “We’re hoping to have a full-fledged publishing program that includes graphic design, marketing, and promotion teams by 2018,” Steele says. Students will create a call for submissions, read and select manuscripts, and then be paired with a more established editor or writer to edit the selected manuscripts. They will also work on every stage of production, from layout and design to promotion. Steele plans for the press to release three to five chapbooks through the series each year and to put out other books as well. This summer she is working with a group of teens to curate, edit, design, and publish a book of poetry and fashion photography centering around the Gwendolyn Brooks centennial, which is being celebrated this year in Chicago. The anthology will be published in October. 

By teaching teens how to publish books, Steele believes she will help equip them with both entrepreneurial and collaborative experience that will be applicable within and beyond the creative industry. By taking on the role of an editor, publisher, or marketing executive, Steele says, the young people involved with the YP will acquire marketable skills before they even graduate high school. She also hopes to reach more teens by bringing YP books into classrooms. Starting in the 2017–2018 school year, she plans to provide the chapbooks to teachers in Chicago schools and help them develop lesson plans based on each book’s content or theme. “We often hear from teachers that they wish they had more books written by teens to share with their students, so we’re hoping this could fill that need,” she says. “As far as I know, there aren’t many collections of poetry being taught in the classroom, let alone collections by teens.” 

Steele’s commitment to empowering teens is partially motivated by her own experiences as a young person. “I didn’t know I could be an editor,” she says. “I thought if I got my English degree, I was just going to be a high school English teacher. But if someone had told me that I could be editing a magazine, I probably would have made different choices. We’re trying to create these experiences for kids at this age so they can make more informed choices about what they’re interested in doing. That’s the underlying point of all of this: creating, through the literary arts, skills that can be transferable to any career path they’re interested in.”

Tara Jayakar is the founder and editor of Raptor Editing. She lives in New York City.

[Y]volve Publishing’s poets (from left) Semira Truth Garrett, Jalen Kobayashi, Kai Wright, and Nyvia Taylor.

(Credit: Kikomo.p Imagery)

Q&A: Yang Inspires Young Readers

by

Dana Isokawa

2.15.17

In 2008 the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council, and the nonprofit organization Every Child a Reader established the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature position to celebrate and promote books for children and young adult readers. The current ambassador, graphic novelist and recent MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient Gene Luen Yang, started his term in January 2016. Yang has devoted much of his work to his Reading Without Walls Challenge, which encourages kids to read books with unfamiliar characters, topics, and formats. Yang is the perfect advocate for such an undertaking: His popular graphic novels American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints have pushed against cultural stereotypes and blurred the lines between the comic-book and book-publishing industries. More than halfway through his two-year term, Yang spoke about his work as the ambassador.

What inspired you to come up with the Reading Without Walls Challenge?
We want kids to read outside their comfort zones, and we want them to do it in three ways. One: We want them to read about characters who don’t look like them or live like them. Two: We want them to read about topics they don’t know anything about. And three: We want them to read books in different formats. So if they normally read only graphic novels for fun, we want them to try a chapter book, and if they read only chapter books for fun, we want them to try a graphic novel.

What are you planning next?
Right now we’re trying to promote the Reading Without Walls program. We’ve put together a bunch of downloadable materials: recommended reading lists, posters, and certificates of completion. We’re hoping librarians, booksellers, and teachers will download, print, and use these materials to promote the initiative with their classes. And we’re trying to do a wider national push for the summer.

What else is involved in the national ambassador position?
It’s pretty flexible. I have a few speaking engagements—I was at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., in the fall, which was a ton of fun. I’m going to go again this year, and I’ve done a few school visits, some of them in person, some of them over Skype. We’ve tried some online stuff. I have a video podcast called the Reading Without Walls podcast—it’s just me having conversations about children’s books with people I really like. I had one that came out with Lois Lowry, who wrote The Giver; another one with Patrick Ness, who wrote A Monster Calls. I also do a monthly column at Book Riot about making comics, and we’re probably going to start another podcast this year.

Why do you think it’s important for kids to read books with characters who don’t look or live like them?
There are studies that show that fiction in particular builds empathy—that when you read about characters who don’t look or live like you, you begin to understand them a little bit better. You understand what makes you similar and how vast the differences are, and it helps you to be a little bit more compassionate toward people who are different from you. Right now it seems like—not just in America, but around the world—we need a little more empathy. And I include myself in that too. I worry about how technology affects us. Just recently with the presidential election, there was all of [this research] about how Facebook basically shows you stuff you like to read. And then even beyond that, you can literally read about yourself all day. You could just fill your whole day with pure narcissism because of digital media. And I think fiction is the exact opposite of that. Well-written fiction pulls you out of your own mind space and helps you see into the thoughts and lives of somebody else.

Can you think of a book where you were reading without walls as a kid?
As an Asian American kid growing up in America in the eighties, almost every book that I read was outside of my own walls, because they were about kids that were part of the majority culture. I do think that maybe gender-wise there were books that pushed me outside of my walls. Like almost every kid in the eighties, I loved Beverly Cleary and I loved the Ramona books. I think as a character Ramona really broke stereotypes and cultural norms about the way little girls should act, because she was creative and rambunctious and kind of loud. And there was a lot of overlap in the way she saw the world and the way I saw the world as a little kid. So I think that that pushed me out. And there were also books that mirrored my life. I started collecting comics in the fifth grade and got really obsessed with superheroes. I wonder if part of that obsession comes from the fact that these superheroes negotiated two different identities—Superman wasn’t just Superman, he was also Clark Kent. In some ways that mirrored my own reality since I had a Chinese name at home and an American name at school; I lived under two different sets of expectations. And Superman is actually an immigrant too—he deals with the cultures of both Krypton and America.

Have your experiences as a graphic novelist informed the challenge, especially the part about reading in different formats?
Yes, absolutely. I think in America, up until pretty recently, the comic-book market and the book market were really two separate entities. They had their own stores, distribution systems, norms, and readerships. It’s only in the last ten or fifteen years that they’ve started working together. I really think I’ve been a beneficiary of that merging, and it’s exciting to see. It’s exciting to see how publishers and authors who are prominent in one area are starting to embrace the work from the authors in the other area. More and more we’re seeing publishers who typically only publish prose books start to add graphic novels to their list. On the other side, we’re starting to see comic-book publishers recruit writers who are primarily known for their prose, like Ta-Nehisi Coates over at Marvel.

Do you think that’s because people’s opinions or the form itself is changing? Can you diagnose why that shift is happening?
I think there are three prominent comic cultures in the world. There’s the American one; there’s an Asian one that’s centered primarily around Japan, and there’s a European one centered around France and French-speaking Belgium. And in those other two cultures, comics have been prominent for a long time. If you go to Japan, there will be people of every age and gender reading graphic novels and manga on the subways. In France, it’s the same way: They televise the comic awards shows. In both of those cultures, it’s always been a big deal. It’s only in America that comics have been in this backwater. And that really goes back to the 1950s when the child psychologist Fredric Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent, in which he argued that comic books cause juvenile delinquency. The United States Congress took it very seriously and had a series of congressional hearings where they called comic-book authors, publishers, and artists to Washington, D.C., to testify to see if comics actually caused juvenile delinquency. These hearings lasted for a few weeks, but didn’t end conclusively—there was no congressional decision that came out of it. But they damaged the reputation of comics in the eyes of the American public, and that lasted for decades. That didn’t happen in Japan or France. I feel what happened in Japan and France was a much more natural development of the medium, whereas in America it was stunted. It wasn’t until the last couple of decades that people have forgotten about what happened in the fifties. People have finally started to realize that comics don’t cause juvenile delinquency.

What draws you to working with and writing for young people?
I think it’s kind of my natural storytelling voice. When I first started writing comics, I was a self-publisher. I was working at a tiny scale. I would Xerox comics and I’d try to sell them at shows. I’d sell probably a dozen or two—tiny scale. And when you’re working at that level, you don’t think about demographics. I wasn’t actually categorized as a young-adult author until I signed with First Second, my primary publisher. They come out of the book world, not the comic-book world. In the book world age demographics are huge; that’s how booksellers decide where to shelve their books and how to sell them. So I was categorized there. It’s not something I had in my head when I first started, but I think it sits well—probably because I was a high-school teacher for a long time. I taught high-school computer science for seventeen years, so I was just surrounded by teenage voices, and a lot of that just bleeds into you. When you spend so much time in the hallways of a school, the voices of those hallways just kind of get into you.

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Activating Public Space With Books

by

Morgan Jerkins

4.13.16

The Uni Project, a New York City–based organization that has created hundreds of pop-up reading rooms throughout the city to encourage reading and inspire learning, particularly in underserved communities, is marking its fifth anniversary this year by doing the kind of work that has made its first five years so successful. “It has always been about activating public space with meaningful ways for people to gather,” says Sam Davol, who, with spouse Leslie Davol, started the project in 2011.

The idea for the Uni Project began to take shape two years earlier, in 2009, when the couple became frustrated that Boston’s Chinatown, the neighborhood where they lived with their two kids, had no library. In response, they created the Storefront Library, a temporary community library in a borrowed storefront. Emboldened by their work, the Davols, who moved from Boston to New York in 2011, began to research how to create library experiences in city parks and plazas.

Inspired by a library branch in Stockholm’s metro station and the New York Public Library’s Bryant Park Reading Room, they commissioned architects to help them design a “reading kit”—a transportable reading cart complete with stackable shelves and chairs, which would serve as the basis for pop-up libraries. “The mission was less about access to books and information than about creating a great experience for urban people, something that could let people express a value of learning and education, right at street level,” says Sam Davol.

The Uni Project debuted its first reading room in New York City’s South Street Seaport on September 11, 2011, and has since installed nearly three hundred pop-up libraries in over fifty neighborhoods. Most of the reading rooms are assembled outdoors for a few hours at a time, their shelves stocked with books donated from libraries, publishers, and individuals. The Davols estimate they’ve reached more than twelve thousand New Yorkers through the program, with reading rooms stretching across the city’s five boroughs—from Clinton Hill in Brooklyn to Ozone Park in Queens to Morrisania in the Bronx. And the project isn’t just confined to New York: The Davols have sent their reading kits to the Seattle Public Library and the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy in Boston, as well as to international sites, such as the U.S. Consulate in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and the Médiathèque Départementale du Haut-Rhin Library in Colmar, France.

As part of the project’s mission, the Davols try to create pop-up reading rooms in neighborhoods where books and libraries are scarce. “We’ve discovered that our reading rooms significantly increase feelings of community safety in some neighborhoods, which is especially important for women and families who want to be out and about,” says Sam Davol. “Reading together creates a way for people of all walks of life to linger in a public space, activating it, enlivening it.”

Not only does the Uni Project provide books to communities that need them most, but the Davols also try to curate collections that reflect the demographics of the neighborhood. “We have lots of books in Spanish, and some in Chinese,” says Leslie Davol. “We have a few books in Hebrew, Arabic, and French…. In Ozone Park, the Queens Library came through with a loan of books in Bengali. Some of our collection has been donated by institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Chinese in America, the Louis Armstrong House Museum, and the New York Hall of Science.”

The reading rooms offer more than just books—their open-air locations on bustling city streets spark conversations and encourage a more interactive environment. They are staffed by approximately twenty active volunteers, who help people find books and lead other educational activities, such as writing flash fiction, drawing, and even learning how to use a microscope. The volunteers reflect the diversity of the city: Some have come from Ecuador, Thailand, or China, while others have been middle-schoolers who just love books and want to get to know the city.

The project shows no signs of slowing down: More than a hundred reading rooms are scheduled to pop up in New York City this year. The project continues to expand its partnerships with the city’s libraries and parks, and the Davols are looking for new ways to reach more neighborhoods and grow their book collections. “A city,” Sam Davol says, “can never have too many books.”

Morgan Jerkins is a writer and the web editorial assistant at Catapult. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, BuzzFeed, the Atlantic, and Fusion, among many others.

 

Poetry to the People Tour

by

Maggie Millner

6.12.19

For the past two years the literary nonprofit House of SpeakEasy has been bringing books to neighborhoods in and around New York City in the back of its bookmobile, a festive maroon box truck outfitted with bookshelves and movable side panels that serves as a pop-up bookstore and donation center wherever it’s parked. This June, in collaboration with storytelling organization Narrative 4, the bookmobile will undertake its longest journey yet, traveling fifteen hundred miles from New York City to New Orleans and making stops in seven states along the way.

During this expedition, called the Poetry to the People Tour, representatives from House of SpeakEasy and Narrative 4 will host events and donate books to local libraries, schools, and prisons. The truck will then roll into New Orleans on the first day of Narrative 4’s annual Global Summit, a five-day event for teens and young adults to share stories and build leadership skills. “I knew that we were heading to New Orleans for the summit, so I had a wild idea to drive there and give out books in underserved spaces along the way,” says Rob Spillman, who works with Narrative 4 and is more widely known as the editor and cofounder of Tin House, which published its final issue in June. “The House of SpeakEasy team and the Narrative 4 team both loved the idea, so we joined forces.” Spillman also contacted DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit that connects potential donors with teachers in public schools, to identify classrooms with specific book needs and help map the tour’s route.

Running from June 13 to June 21, the tour will make stops in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Spillman will share driving duties with Jeff Waxman, partnerships director of House of SpeakEasy, and a few guest poets will even take brief stints behind the wheel. Over the course of their winding southward journey, the motorists will distribute more than four thousand books to prisons, libraries such as the Floyd County Public Library in Kentucky, and schools such as Plum High School in Pittsburgh.

While the donated books encompass a range of genres from self-help to literary fiction, according to the needs of each institution, events on the tour will emphasize poetry, which Spillman and Waxman agree is a particularly galvanizing outlet for young people today. “Right now poetry feels incredibly urgent,” Spillman says. “It is able to address the current, horribly unsettled moment better than most prose. The poets on the rise today—Morgan Parker, Danez Smith, Tommy Pico, Solmaz Sharif, Natalie Diaz, Kaveh Akbar, Ross Gay, Rickey Laurentiis—are also reflective of the real diversity of our country. Their poetry connects with teens in an immediate, visceral manner.” The tour’s schedule of events reflects that belief: On June 14 the Free Library of Philadelphia will host a story exchange, a workshop, and a reading featuring local teens alongside Philadelphia poet laureate Raquel Salas Rivera and writer and educator Rayna Guy. And on June 15 poets Jenny Johnson and Rickey Laurentiis will perform at the Carnegie Mellon Library in Pittsburgh.

The tour has naturally grown out of both organizations’ work to produce creative events that bring people together through stories or books. In addition to selling and donating books from the windows of its bookmobile, House of SpeakEasy hosts a series of literary cabarets in New York City that feature prominent writers and thinkers reading and riffing on a given theme. The organization also subsidizes tickets for teachers and students to attend literary events for free and sends working writers into classrooms and community centers throughout the city. Narrative 4, which has chapters in twelve countries on four continents, conducts story exchanges—events in which participants pair off to swap their stories and then retell those stories to the larger group—among people with different perspectives who wouldn’t otherwise meet, such as teens from public and private high schools or refugees and public opponents of refugee resettlement.

The organizers want the tour to bring this work to communities they have not reached before. “The mission of Narrative 4 is to harness the power of the story exchange to equip and embolden young adults to improve their lives, their communities, and the world,” Spillman says. “We are all about making connections through story, and the Poetry to the People Tour allows us to share stories and poems in person and make in-person connections across age, race, class, and geographic differences.” 

 

Maggie Millner is a poet and teacher from rural upstate New York. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the New Yorker, Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, and ZYZZYVA. Previously she was the Diana & Simon Raab Editorial Fellow at Poets & Writers Magazine

The House of SpeakEasy’s bookmobile at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2017. 

(Credit: Jasmina Tomic)

Fractures Through Time: Our Eleventh Annual Look at Debut Poets

by

Dana Isokawa

12.15.15

If you want to get a sense of where contemporary poetry is headed, there’s no better place to start than with recently published debut collections. Each year sees a rich, diverse lineup of debut poets whose work offers fresh perspectives, exciting new ideas and experiences of language, and unexplored subject matter. Even tried-and-true poetic topics—history, the beloved, nature, family, identity—are explored, interrogated, and lit up in new ways. This past year is no exception: In 2015, debut poets took on everything from Chinese unicorns and Mesoamerican shape-shifters to jazz trumpeter Chet Baker and The Real Housewives television franchise. They wrote sonnet cycles, erasures, conceptual poems, and lyric poems that skip across the page and open their readers’ eyes, illuminating ideas at turns thrilling, devastating, and always alive.           

For our eleventh annual look at debut poets, we selected ten of the most compelling debuts published in 2015. The work of these featured poets runs the gamut, though each book celebrates the ways in which language, as Hannah Sanghee Park says, “shifts, morphs, steals, and fractures through time.” We asked all our poets to share the stories behind both the genesis of their poems and the publication of their collections—how they navigate publication and how to, as Alicia Jo Rabins puts it, “forge ahead despite setbacks and rejections and silence while also holding the whole endeavor lightly.” Their answers prove that there is no single path from a manuscript to a published book, and that inspiration can be found in the most ordinary and unusual of places—from the former home of a much-admired poet or a yard full of weeds to a drive on the freeway along the U.S.­–Mexico border. But there is one common thread woven throughout: the invocation to submit to one’s obsessions, to write past the machinations of the publishing industry and the expectations of others and into the refuge of language.

Robin Coste Lewis
Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems

Knopf

“Once, I thought I was a person with a body,
               the body of something peering
                              out, enchanted
                                            and tossed.”
from “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari”

How it began: Actually, I began writing poetry because of a very serious accident that left me with permanent traumatic brain injury. At one point in my recovery (because reading, writing, and speaking made me very symptomatic), my doctors told me I could only read one sentence a day, only write one sentence a day. After that shock began to wear off, I decided to use their prognosis as a formal writing restraint. I spent many months not trying to write a poem, but trying to write only one very fine line. It sounds romantic, but it wasn’t. At first, I was profoundly depressed. After years of teaching literature and writing, what was a life without books? Writing a line a day was an experience in tremendous discipline. It was thrilling to work again, yes, but to work silently in bed for hours, without writing or typing, working just inside my head, was also very macabre. Slowly, my illness became a sort of game. I’d find the milk in the oven and crack up laughing. It was pure poetry, brain damage. It was profoundly humbling.

In short, all those skills artists must acquire—stillness, concentration, discipline, compression, wrestling with the ego, all of it—walked in the door, hand in hand, with brain damage. That’s the real story behind my book. Poetry was the means by which I learned to reenter the world after traumatic brain injury. What compelled me to write was the desire to continue living an engaged life. Poetry allowed me to reenter my work, but from a different door. 

Inspiration: Epic literature, especially Sanskrit epics and comparative mythology. I’m also quite nuts about Sanskrit court poetry. Another court I love to visit is the royal kingdom of jazz. What both Sanskrit poetry and jazz have in common, I think, is their mysterious and masterful use of silence, their ability to achieve their goal by laying it on thick while pulling way back simultaneously. Any art form that can balance sublime expression with tacit restraint has me from hello. I’m also inspired deeply by individual, quiet responses to history. I love the historical nerd-freak no one wants to research because they are too strange or eccentric or unconventional to make anyone proud. I am compelled by people who simply do their work, whatever that might be, quietly. Quiet devotion is a primary source of inspiration for me, however that manifests. I usually find much of that in the colored ancient world. And then, of course, I swing the other way toward that entire, ongoing waterfall of post-modern, post-colonial, often queer, cultural production, which makes me just swoon.

Writer’s Block Remedy: Honestly, I have never reached an impasse with my writing. My impasse is that I can’t stop writing. It’s not cute. I’m completely hypergraphic. This is not to say, however, that any of the madness I write is any good. I merely mean to say that not being able to write isn’t my issue. However, what occurs before writing—that’s where my demons skip and play rope. I used to think the longest road I’ve ever traveled was from my bed to my desk. All of those voices inside my head that tell me, “No, you can’t say” or, “No, you better not…” or, “What would [fill in the blank] do or say or think?” I don’t know how to describe this, but I know it had something to do with being born in the sixties, being a child in the sixties and witnessing just heinous experiences without any true developmental ability to articulate it. We all had a profound sense of injustice growing up. It was impossible not to feel that, watching profound degradation so common it felt like air. Our education was a travesty. So just holding a pencil when I was younger was very difficult for me. No one took our minds seriously. As a child, all I had heard was that, historically, I, as an African American, was not believed to possess a real mind; or I, like my ancestors, only had three-fifths of a brain. I mean, lest we forget, our bodies were once dissected, literally. So my struggle has never been within language. Language has always, always, been a refuge.

What has never felt natural, however, is this sickening history wherein bodies like mine were positioned to play the role of buffoon. It’s a rare moment indeed that I pick up my pen and do not immediately remember that in America it was considered illegal for black bodies to read and write. Just holding a pencil for me is deliciously transgressive. So history is my impasse—nothing else. What keeps me going? The work of others. Others, definitely.

Writing Prompt: When I was at Harvard, Jamaica Kincaid once said in our workshop, “Write about that which most embarrasses you.” I think that’s profoundly good advice. It’s so easy, isn’t it, to climb atop a soapbox and recite a poem about the ways in which we believe the world is fucked up? When I write that way, I’m certain all I’m doing is insulting my reader. Who, for example, doesn’t know the whole world is in cinders? And so I believe my work can be more effective, can reach deeper inside the reader if I say, “It is I who feel profoundly fucked up,” and then explore why meticulously. I like to use tenderness as a weapon, a seduction, a door to leave ajar so that my reader will walk inside the poem and feel safe, even in the face of profound historical horror. Trust me, I’m not saying all poems should begin with shame or embarrassment as a motivation, not by any means. I like writing all kinds of poems in all kinds of forms. I’m simply saying that instead of using writing prompts, I sometimes ask myself, “Well, what are you most avoiding?” And for me that’s a good place to begin. 

Advice: I’m not sure I’m the right person to give advice about first books. I am fifty-one after all. Don’t get me wrong, I love my age, and I love that I’m just now publishing my first book, but it seems as if the “debut” has become a sort of genre, a particular ideal regarding what constitutes a first collection. I’ve known for a long while that my work has never fit into that schematic. My book, primarily, is about the history of race and Western art. It’s an experiment in archive. It’s not really what first-book publishers are looking for. Also, many debut prizes and grants have age limits or requirements. So by the time I settled into raising my son and finding my place in my work, my writing was already disqualified from even applying because I was older. Ultimately, it’s worked out just fine. And anyways, I don’t think I really had much to offer any reader when I was thirty-five. I was a mess. What could I have done with a page at thirty-five besides romanticize being a thirty-five-year-old mess? I am more of a tortoise than a hare. I like what taking my time reveals.

Also, I adamantly don’t believe that because one writes it follows naturally that one must also publish. I’ve written books for one person, and shared it only with that sublime audience of one. I’ve burned others. Virginia Woolf said rather famously that writing is a far greater pleasure than being read. I’m from that camp, I think. I’m deeply suspicious of the market.

So, I guess this is a long way of saying that if I have any advice to poets trying to publish their first book it’s this: Try not to look up too often at what others are doing. Your work is interesting because it’s yours, not because of where it lands in the publishing world. Ignore literary fashions and stay close to your own hand. Try not to please anyone or any particular audience. Find out what the real work is inside of you, then find the courage to do it well. Resist the temptation to be clever. It’s sexy, but it’s a sure sign that your mask has control of you, and not the other way around. Just do your work.

What’s next: I’m revising the other two manuscripts I finished while at New York University. The first, “To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness,” is about the Arctic and its history of both colonialism and exploration. I use this history as an allegory for post-colonial desires for subjectivity. Besides the circumpolar diaspora and the history of expansionism, the book pivots primarily around African American Arctic explorer Matthew Henson. Henson codiscovered the North Pole, but was reluctantly given historical credit, due to race relations not only in the United States, but in the sciences specifically. I’m also revising another collection that I also began at NYU, a project titled “The Pickaninny Wins!,” a double-erasure of a 1931 children’s book originally titled The Pickaninny Twins.

Age: 51.

Hometown: Compton, California.

Residence: Los Angeles.

Job: I’m a PhD candidate in poetry at the University of Southern California. It’s a hybrid PhD, so I do both creative and critical work. That is, I write poetry, and research-wise, I work on the historical relationship between African American photography and African American poetry.

Does your job allow time to write? Is this a serious question?

Time spent writing the book: All in all, the whole book probably took five or six years—with brain damage and a new child thrown in for good measure.

Time spent finding a home for it: Three years.

Three favorite words: pewter, black, pacific.

Robin Coste Lewis and Claudia Rankine: The Poet as Citizen from ALOUDla on Vimeo.

***

Alicia Jo Rabins
Divinity School

American Poetry Review (Honickman First Book Prize)

“Let me teach you about beauty:
a slanted shipwreck
draped in its own torn sails.”
–from “The Magic”

How it began: I am obsessed with a few consistent themes: how weird it is to live in time; the magic of teaching and learning; the closeness and distance between people; and the mysteries of living in a body, like sex, love, travel, food, beauty, death.

Inspiration: Ancient Jewish texts are a huge influence and inspiration for me: the practical, the mystical, and especially the intersection of the two. I also draw on yoga, ritual, and spiritual practice in general. Music is a big part of my life too—both the experience of making music in many different genres and touring itself have defined and marked my life. Kenneth Koch taught me, in college, not to take myself too seriously in my poems. New York City inspired me tremendously for years, and since moving to Portland I’ve been inspired by the forests and plants, the weeds in my garden. Having children is immense and mind-blowing and inspiring, and I draw a lot of inspiration from my dreams as well.

Influences: Anne Carson, James Joyce (Ulysses in particular), Sylvia Plath, Christopher Smart, John Donne, J. S. Bach, Pablo Neruda, Laurie Anderson, Harryette Mullen, Brenda Shaughnessy, Julio Cortázar, Lucille Clifton, Yoko Ono. And so many of my contemporaries and friends, whom I won’t name for fear of inevitably leaving some out.

Writer’s Block Remedy: Because I usually write in a stream-of-consciousness mode and edit later, I don’t really experience impasses. Something is always happening, even if it’s only the breath. I did stop writing for three years in my early twenties, though. I had studied poetry intensely in college and felt like I had strained my reading and writing muscle, and that my relationship to writing was too ego-based and needed a dramatic reset. I completely let writing go and promised myself I would only start again if it returned naturally, without any pressure or ambition or intention. I was glad when it came back a few years later, and my relationship to poetry was transformed. I guess it’s important to me to maintain some paradoxical mix of being stubbornly devoted to poetry, enough to forge ahead despite setbacks and rejections and silence, while also holding the whole endeavor lightly. 

Advice: The best advice I ever got was at an artist training from Creative Capital: If you aren’t getting rejected from 90 percent of the things you apply to, you aren’t aiming high enough. It flipped the script for me so that rejections meant I was doing my job, rather than failing at it. Along the same lines, I try to separate the work of being an artist into two parts: my writing self, who is sensitive and passionate and all that stuff, and my personal assistant self, who just sits down with a cup of coffee and submits poems without any emotional investment. Or, to put it briefly, play the long game.

What’s next: I’m writing my second book of poetry, about motherhood and giving birth and gardening and midwifery goddesses and how psychedelic the whole experience of pregnancy, birth, and early parenthood is. I’m also touring with my songwriting project Girls in Trouble (we just released our third album), and with my solo chamber-rock opera A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff. And I’m slowly moving towards writing a nonfiction book I’ve been mulling over for a while now.

Age: 38.

Hometown: I was born in Portland, Oregon, and grew up in Towson, Maryland. I also lived in New York City and Northampton, Massachusetts, for years and they both feel like home.

Residence: Portland, Oregon.

Job: I patch together a living between my work as a writer, musician, composer, performer, and teacher of Torah. As Eileen Myles says, “There are so many different packages for the same energy to travel through.” 

Does your job allow time to write? This isn’t an easy question for me to answer. On the one hand, I’d love more focused time to write, but on the other hand, the line between “writing” and “job” is blurry in my life—songwriting is part of how I make my living, for example—and I have always written in the nooks and crannies of my day. Also, for the record, I find that being a parent of two young children demands more consistent presence of mind than any job I’ve ever had, and (alongside all the great stuff) is therefore more of a challenge for me in terms of writing time.

Time spent writing the book: The oldest poem in the book is eighteen years old and, amazingly, in exactly the same form it was in when I wrote it in college. It wasn’t originally part of the book, but I added it back in somewhere during the editing process. The rest of them were written over the past twelve or so years, though almost all of them were continually revised while I submitted and resubmitted the manuscript. It almost feels like two different processes—eighteen years of writing the poems and seven of intentionally editing the manuscript. Wow, that’s a long time.

Time spent finding a home for it: Five years, though I edited it throughout, so it was a very different book by the end.

Three favorite words: Amethyst. Sage. Antediluvian.

Alicia Jo Rabins reads “How To Travel” featuring the face of Alicia McDaid. Video by Zak Margolis on Vimeo. Check out another recent reading Rabins gave in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as part of the Poetry in America series.

***

Jay Deshpande
Love the Stranger

YesYes Books

“But we will never have enough
of being wrong about the other, not once.”
–from “Amor Fati”

How it began: The earliest pieces of the book came together during my MFA, but it had a very different form and was wrapped around a couple series of poems that ultimately didn’t belong. I’ve always been drawn towards the love poem and lyric descriptions of beauty, but in that period I began to experiment more with the unfamiliar and the disturbing. I found my poems coming alive at the moments when the erotic and the alien braided together. At some point I started to see how the loss of the beloved is not just an occasion for utterance, but also an opportunity for greater reckoning with what it means to be human, and alone, and therefore deeply connected. Following these themes, I wrote a chapbook called “Love the Stranger” shortly after grad school; it was another year before I realized that it held the keys to this book.

Inspiration: Visually, René Magritte’s work was an essential influence on the book. Also middle-period Federico Fellini. Denis Johnson’s poems have always been a major touchstone for me, and they helped to shape parts of Love the Stranger. Environmentally, I took great inspiration from a residency at the Saltonstall Arts Colony in upstate New York. A lot of unseen and necessary work happened there in the woods and on the trails.

Influences: Denis Johnson, Marie Howe, Timothy Donnelly, Ben Lerner, Lyn Hejinian, Rainer Maria Rilke, John Ashbery, Bianca Stone, Richard Siken, Lucie Brock-Broido, E. M. Forster, Marilynne Robinson. Among visual artists, Dorothea Tanning’s work in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and Diana Al-Hadid’s sculptures. 

Writer’s Block Remedy: I have long conversations with my brother, who is a musician and writer, about why we do what we do. I reread Michael Ondaatje. I think about Frank Ocean’s songwriting. I play old standards on the piano and explore chords until I remember that some parts of experience stay blissfully outside of words. And then I go spend time with the people I love and try to learn from them. I’ve also found that I have trouble writing when my work has moved away from the physicality of pencil and paper for too long. Then I’ll print out a number of pages of poetry (mine and others’) and mark them up excessively.

Writing Prompt: Just to get the lede out and free things up, I like to take an old poem of mine and perform a phonetic English-to-English mistranslation on it. “I, too, dislike it” becomes “Why’d you ignite this?”; “A certain slant of light” becomes “The skirt and pants of night,” etc. The goal is to keep the music and change everything else.

Advice: Read widely and make it your job to really consider the character of different presses: what’s the range of authors they publish, what qualities and ideas do their books seem to value, how do their books feel in your hands.

What’s next: In addition to writing individual poems to push my voice in new directions, I’m at work on an essay collection and a book of translations of the Egyptian poet Georges Henein.

Age: 31.

Hometown: Boston.

Residence: New York City.

Job: I write for Slate and other magazines.

Does your job allow time to write? It’s a constant navigation, but at the moment it works pretty well.

Time spent writing the book: About five years.

Time spent finding a home for it: It took one year; I sent it to six places. It was a finalist for the 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize, and then was accepted by YesYes Books during its open reading period.

Three favorite words: These kinds of lists always make me squirmy! But if it’s absolutely necessary: sandwiches; flensing; and, if it can count as one word, chocolate milk.

 

***

Hannah Sanghee Park
The Same-Different

Louisiana State University Press (Walt Whitman Award)

“Just what they said about the river:
rift and ever.

And nothing was left for the ether
there either.”
–from “Bang”

How it began: I had a lengthy first manuscript I was editing and sending out, and wanted a change of pace and page. I was aiming for concision. At the book’s inception, I was researching myth and folklore in Korea, in the hopes that I would write a manuscript about stories. I found that a lot of Korean stories had counterparts elsewhere (with its own cultural DNA), and that mix of universality and specificity was compelling. But at its simplest, the book is a paean to what comprises storytelling—language, in its words, sounds, imagery, and meanings. It was at the end of my research that I found H. D.’s Trilogy. I kept these H. D. lines on a Post-It above me as I wrote: “her book is our book; written / or unwritten, its pages will reveal // a tale of a Fisherman, / a tale of a jar or jars, // the same—different—the same attributes, / different yet the same as before.”

Inspiration: International folklore, fairy tales, and mythology—shape-shifters, hybrids, dualities, and metamorphoses. The same could be said about language as well—how it shifts, morphs, steals, and fractures through time. I’ve always loved form, prosody, and wordplay. When I started writing: H. D., James Baldwin, and Marina Tsvetaeva. The letters of Philip Larkin, John Keats, and Sylvia Plath. The bulk of it: everyone mentioned, Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Merrill, Samuel Beckett, a physical dictionary and thesaurus. Poetry by my friends and mentors. The editing and the end—Don Mee Choi and Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman. And in full circle, I turned back to H. D., Baldwin, and Tsvetaeva in different forms—short stories, plays, and nonfiction. When I was finishing the book, I was also learning how to write screenplays, which was helpful in economy and setting. But the running fount has always been the communities I’ve been lucky to be a part of. Wherever I go, I have met brilliant people who make me a better writer: professors, colleagues, peers. The book was written in Korea, Washington, New Hampshire, and California, and the natural landscapes influenced the book’s backdrop.

Influences: This is an ongoing, disparate anthology, so to keep it short—other than the poets I’ve mentioned above, my immediate community is always influential. Since moving to Los Angeles, I’ve been stunned by these local powerhouses: Kima Jones, Blas Falconer, Ashaki Jackson, Marci Vogel, and others. And the many poets I’ve met and hope to meet who are keeping poetry alive. Recently, the students in the 2015 Poetry Out Loud Competition inspired me—I experienced familiar poems in new ways.

Writer’s Block Remedy: I read, or watch films or TV. I used to be a night writer, and my excuse was that there were no distractions—I’m off work, everyone around me has gone to sleep. But sometimes I need to clean, cook, decide now’s the time to take up a new activity, and then write. As if expending all this other energy, or resting my mind allows the mind to reset. Writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and open dialogue is necessary. I call people—usually my writing partner, Jane Shim—to discuss ideas. What keeps me going is the belief that even if writing is frustrating or maddening, it’s ultimately worth it. Petrarch: “And so desire carries me along.” And caffeine, too. Getting the ball rolling in the right direction sometimes feels Sisyphean, but when it starts, the speed and the growth is euphoric. No distraction is great enough. Writing is like a labyrinth. Sometimes there’s a reward at the end of it; sometimes you’re pursued by Sallie Mae and her Echidna spawn Navient. But nothing feels better than actually moving through it.

Writing Prompt: How much a word can be dissected, rearranged, and reimagined—imagined etymologies, defamiliarization, constraint-based writing. In short, the intersection of structure and play.

Advice: Keep reading, writing, rewriting, and sending, even when it seems like there’s a void. Dream big (a bromide that’s useful), and go there. That’s what I needed to hear in the publication process. Every time my writing boomerangs back to me, there’s a chance to reassess my work and my thoughts. I know form rejection boilerplate, but I also know the generous people in my life who have cheered me on. Having both rejection and support provides a kind of ballast. Knowing why you write despite x is invaluable—the pure joy of creating is as powerful as the final creation.

What’s next: Writing scripts, rewriting scripts, treatments, short stories, and starting a new poetry book.

Age: 29.

Hometown: Federal Way, Washington.

Residence: Los Angeles.

Job: Freelance writer.

Does your job allow time to write? Yes, but personal writing requires juggling. It’s a constant turning of a lazy Susan—a little here, a pass there, but all that matters is movement.

Time spent writing the book: For this book specifically, about one and a half to two years. It was fast because I had the luxury of a fellowship and a residency. I did a two-month residency at the MacDowell Colony (paradise) where I kept to a tight schedule. I woke up early, ate breakfast, and went back to my Internet-less studio and wrote. As I ate lunch, I read. Then I wrote until dinner. When I came back from unwinding, I’d write until I needed to sleep. Rinse and repeat. I’m naturally lazy, so I need this kind of structure. The bulk of the book was written then, because most of the day could be devoted to writing. However, a poem I wrote about five years ago made it in as well—a long-lost relative finding her family. 

Time spent finding a home for it: Before this book, I sent my first manuscript out for about four to five years. When I was satisfied with The Same-Different, the plan was to send to a few places each cycle, as I was on a tight budget. But I lucked out, and The Same-Different was accepted in its first submission round.

Three favorite words: Cleave, move, empathy.

Hannah Sanghee Park reads from The Same-Different at the Academy of American Poets’s 2014 Poets Forum Awards Ceremony.

Jonathan Fink
The Crossing

Dzanc Books

“The bodies hang like chimes within the boughs.
Perhaps the height is welcome to the dead”
–from “The Crossing”

How it began: What poetry offers, and what set me off writing this book, is the visceral engagement with language that welcomes attention to imagery, tone, rhythm, narrative, metaphor, politics, ethics, humor, myth, and justice, among many other things. Like a painter who simply likes the smell of paint or a potter who likes the feel of clay, the pleasure of embarking on a writing project, for me, always resides in the tactile pleasures of language.

Inspiration: W. H. Auden has a great line, “Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings,” and I often feel inspired to write about personal, imagined, or historical material about which I have mixed feelings. The poems in The Crossing vary from an eighteen-section poem about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to individual poems about myth, art, and my personal experience growing up in West Texas. In all cases, I was inspired to write these poems not because I knew what I wanted to say about the subjects, but because I felt compelled to explore and investigate the complicated material through poetry.

Influences: Too many to name, of course, although I would say, of contemporary poets, Jane Kenyon for the singular, resonate image; Marie Howe for book structure and thematic commitment; and B. H. Fairchild for lyrical, narrative expansiveness. I’ve also been immensely fortunate to work with wonderful writing mentors and teachers, including Natasha Trethewey, Mary Karr, George Saunders, Junot Díaz, Brooks Haxton, Michael Burkard, and Robert Flynn—all stunning writers who are unfailingly generous, constructive, and kind. 

Writer’s Block Remedy: Raymond Carver defined a writer as someone who is willing to stare at something longer than anyone else. For me, that experience has been true; there is no trick to overcoming a writing impasse other than continuing to return to what I’ve written, looking for unexplored possibilities and/or unfulfilled expectations.

Advice: Submit to your obsessions, whatever they are. Resistance is futile. An honestly obsessive collection always resonates much more fully with a reader or editor than a collection constructed with an eye toward the market or some imagined palatable consensus. Remember that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. 

What’s next: Dzanc is bringing out a finished second collection of my poetry, a book-length sonnet sequence titled, “Barbarossa: The German Invasion of the Soviet Union and the Siege of Leningrad.” I’m also nearing completion of a nonfiction collection primarily consisting of place-based immersive and investigative essays. Some topics include the fracking boom in Midland, Texas; the D. B. Cooper plane hijacking and parachute jump; the changing scope of U.S.­–Cuba relations; and the failings and successes of the criminal justice system as seen through the lens of an assault trial in Pensacola, Florida; among other essays. I’m also working on new individual poems. 

Age: 40.

Hometown: Abilene, Texas.

Residence: Pensacola, Florida.

Job: Associate professor and director of creative writing at the University of West Florida.

Does your job allow time to write? Yes, in the sense that my job contributes to the conditions that help make writing possible, but no job has ever prevented me from writing if I felt compelled to write.

Time spent writing the book: Approximately six years.

Time spent finding a home for it: Another six years after finishing and publishing the individual poems.

Three favorite words: Yes. No. Maybe.

Jonathan Fink reads from The Crossing, published by Dzanc Books.

***

Rickey Laurentiis
Boy With Thorn

University of Pittsburgh Press (Cave Canem Poetry Prize)

 

 

“I want to be released from it.
I want its impulses stunned to lead.
This body. Its breath.
Let it. Let the whole pageant
end.”
–from “One Country”

 

How it began: I think about a friend and fellow poet, Phillip B. Williams, with whom I shared a suite at my first Cave Canem retreat in the summer of 2008. He had a manuscript then (actually several), but wouldn’t share it with me to read until I had something manuscript-length to share with him. So, that’s what I think Cave Canem must mean by fellowship: that kind of camaraderie, support, and push, however hard. I eventually did produce a manuscript and shared it with Phillip, but it was one very different in many ways from the Boy With Thorn that would eventually find publication. We helped shaped each other’s books along through the many years, but more importantly we helped compel each other’s poems. Poems first.

 

 

Inspiration: I’m likely to be inspired by anything in the right context: an overheard conversation on the street, a song, literary criticism, philosophy, a personal experience or, as is most present in my book, visual art. I was profoundly influenced and inspired by a course I took while at Sarah Lawrence College—queer theory, with Julie Abraham. That course threw a hammer into my ways of thinking. And not because it attempted to rebuild the pieces (although, in some ways, it did), but because it made me more aware of the pieces themselves and the various social/political discourses that have shaped them.

 

 

Influences: Here are some artists: Glenn Ligon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Björk, Piero della Francesca, Wangechi Mutu, Georgia O’Keeffe, David Bailly, Kara Walker, Edgar Degas, Judy Chicago, Yoko Ono, Jay DeFeo, Caravaggio, Auguste Rodin, Romare Bearden, Frida Kahlo, Anonymous. And I remain deeply influenced, in particular, by Jessye Norman’s rendition of “Deep River,” which she sung at a special concert with Kathleen Battle at Carnegie Hall in 1990 and most of which you can find recorded on YouTube

 

 

Writer’s Block Remedy: My obsessions keep me going. I think about visual art and how, in the example of an artist like Mark Rothko, who explores the same terrain canvas after canvas, or at least seems to, I learned to recognize and trust my obsessions: the images, concepts, figures, and motifs that repeat in my head. Obsessions are ideas that I can at least remember are there at those anxious moments I’m willing to believe in a thing like “writer’s block.” But writer’s block, simply speaking, doesn’t exist if one’s willing to look back at all one has done and, realizing knowledge is always limited, thinks, “Nope, I need to try this again.” I still believe that.

 

 

Writing Prompt: Outside of what I offer to my students, I’m not sure I think about writing in terms of prompts, at least not thematic ones. If I chose any, they’re usually prompts that put restraints on the form or structure of the poem. A part of me vaguely remembers diagramming sentences as a young Catholic school student and so, in some ways, that finds itself in the pleasure I get from trying to sustain a single sentence over the course of a poem, or at least over several lines. There’s something about that exercise that seems dancerly to me, rhythmic.

 

 

Advice: So, there are thirty-three poems in my book—but that doesn’t mean I only wrote thirty-three poems. Of course I wrote way more than that at various stages in my growth and education as a poet—some that made the cut; some that I realize were the equivalent of a pianist practicing her scales; some that only exist as a single ghost line in another poem; some that might eventually find a home in a future collection, who knows. My point is to say that the process takes time, so much time, and, while I’m a fan of putting artificial restraints on a poem so as to get to more creative uses of language, I’m not a fan of artificial time restraints on publication. Just as I think that there’s something potentially problematic in knowing too much about what a poem is about when starting, so too I think there’s a problem in trying to know or demand when you should publish a book. Let the book tell you. And when it does send only to places that carry books you can’t live without.

 

 

What’s next: What they don’t tell you is that the second your first book is accepted for publication at a press (or wins a contest), let alone when it is physically published and released, all the poems you begin to write suddenly sound in a slightly different key, so to speak. The poems are suddenly working under the slight burden of knowledge that they may one day become (or that you need them to become) a second (or third or fourth) book. I am working hard now to try to get back to the kind of specific ignorance one writes from before the first book gets published: when you’re simply writing poem by poem because of some insistence that you have to; this poem must be written, alone, individual, not as a sequence necessarily, not because of some “theme” or “project,” but simply because it demands itself to be written, and for you to write and learn by it.

 

 

Age: 26.

 

Hometown: New Orleans.

 

Residence: New York City.

 

Job: Currently, I teach a course at Columbia University and at the Saturday Program at the Cooper Union. I’m also the director of an after-school writing and literacy program at the Harlem Children’s Zone.

 

Does your job allow time to write? No—but that’s a good thing. When I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to some residencies, for instance, I’ve found that the sudden surplus of free, unstructured time can do harm to my writing process, insofar as I begin to occupy my time in other ways besides writing new work. Residences are great for editing older drafts or for ordering a book. But it’s in the gaps, in the minutes I steal when I’m on a crowded subway, when I’m in a less-than-exciting meeting or when I should be asleep, for example, that I find myself writing the most new material.

 

Time spent writing the book: The earliest poem in the book I wrote as a first-year at Sarah Lawrence College for a class (my first poetry class ever!) with Suzanne Gardinier. That was in the fall of 2007. The last poem I wrote that was also included in the book was written somewhere in late January/early February of 2014, after having seen one of my favorite Basquiat paintings in the flesh in a exhibit in New Orleans earlier that Christmas. So it would seem, then, that it took seven years to write all thirty-three poems that comprise Boy With Thorn (it took two years, alone, to complete one in particular). I was born on February 7. Seven’s always been my favorite number.

 

Time spent finding a home for it: Maybe about a year after Phillip first brought the idea to my mind that I could write toward a manuscript, I sent it out to a handful of contests. To my surprise, the manuscript was honorably mentioned for Red Hen Press’s Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award and was a finalist for the National Poetry Series. But I’ll remind you that this manuscript I’m referring to was, in significant ways, still very different from the book I would come to publish. After that, somehow, and quite suddenly, I wasn’t interested so much in rushing towards book publication. I concerned myself with the quality of the poems themselves, and with seeing them enter the world individually. So there was a large gulf of time when I didn’t submit a single manuscript to any contest or publisher, which mostly paralleled my graduation from Sarah Lawrence and matriculation into the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis. A year after I had received my MFA and had moved back to New York City, I sent my new manuscript to at least two publishers and four contests—four specific contests that either had a history of awarding books I admire or were being judged by poets I greatly enjoy. I didn’t get as much as a nod from three of them but, again to my surprise, I won one! And that it was the Cave Canem Prize just seemed so coming-full-circle perfect! Anyway, depending on how you read this narrative, you can say it took several years to find a publisher, or only a few months.

Three favorite words: Womb, whom. Dark.

Rickey Laurentiis reads two poems from Boy With Thorn, published by University of Pittsburgh Press.

***

Natalie Scenters-Zapico
The Verging Cities

Center for Literary Publishing

 

 

“You forgot to weed your eyes, so brush
has grown wild in your stare.”
–from “When the Desert Made Us Visible”

 

 

How it began: Homesickness. I wrote most of these poems while I was living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I felt deeply haunted by things in my past that I had spent a lot of time ignoring: femicide, narco-violence, and the effect our broken immigration system had on me and the people around me. Suddenly, I felt compelled to face these things in a way I had never had an interest in before. For some reason, being away from the site of my liminality gave me the bravery to voice what had been silenced in me for so long. I also became very interested in the ways that people who are not from El Paso–Juárez were representing my border cities in art and pop culture. I wanted to write down my love affair with a place so often depicted as violent and corrupt.

 

Inspiration: The drive from Albuquerque to El Paso, Texas, and from Ciudad Juárez to Chihuahua was a huge source of inspiration. I would also drive the border freeway and take in that space, that in-between space, that illusion that is so physically damaging. And, of course, late-night conversations with my husband who is a border-rhetorics scholar, and who for most of our relationship was undocumented. When we fell in love, we also fell in love with each other’s pain, and the two cities that held us suspended in that pain. 

 

 

Influences: While working on the collection: David Dorado Romo’s Ringside Seat to a Revolution, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, Norma Elia Cantú’s Canícula, Alejandro Morales’s The Rag Doll Plagues, and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 spent a lot of time on my desk. These books deeply influenced the way that I conceive of borders and of my sister cities, El Paso–Ciudad Juárez. I also spent time with Federico García Lorca, Miguel Hernández, Anna Kamieńska’s notebooks, Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, Rigoberto González, Alberto Ríos, and Benjamin Alire Sáenz. 

 

 

Writer’s Block Remedy: I cook something that takes a while to make, but that I know how to make well. The repetitive motions of cooking keep me grounded in the body, but allow me the freedom to let my mind wander. I also like knowing that many women before me spent so much time in that domestic space, and I remind myself how important it is that I choose to be there, but that I don’t have to be there.

 

 

Writing Prompt: I spend a lot of time looking at the art books for the Bienal Ciudad Juárez–El Paso art shows, and then writing ekphrastic poems or flash fictions. It keeps me connected to where I’m from while helping me to see the border in new ways.

 

 

Advice: It is as important to know what you’re trying to accomplish in your collection as it is to know what it actually accomplishes. Sometimes placing your own will on a collection is the worst thing you can do.

 

 

What’s next: I’m in the early stages of working on the next book, which deals with border-security technologies, surveillance, and weapons. I’m interested in depictions of violence, how we consume that violence, and render that violence in art.

 

 

Age: 27.

 

Hometown: El Paso, Texas.

 

Residence: Salt Lake City.

 

Job: I teach high school English and creative writing.

 

Does your job allow time to write? It is always a struggle for me to write as a high school teacher. I have to schedule time for me to physically sit at my desk and write.

 

Time spent writing the book: It took me four years of obsessively writing and revising in constant rotation.

 

Time spent finding a home for it: One year.

Three favorite words: Sobremesa, cariño, and teeth.

Natalie Scenters-Zapico reads from The Verging Cities, published by The Center for Literary Publishing.

***

Corina Copp
The Green Ray

Ugly Duckling Presse

 

 

“Let rest here my lyre and
Hear soon the moon’s fair
Lecture in black”
–from “Pro Magenta”

 

 

How it began: I was reading Mark Ford’s biography of Raymond Roussel when I first came across mention of the green ray. In the same month, I saw Éric Rohmer’s Le rayon vert, and I attended a François Laruelle lecture. The notes from all three came to be the poem “Pro Magenta,” which set me into thinking about synchronicity and how I compose. The wheels of the actual manuscript were put into motion a few years later, when Ugly Duckling Presse editor Abraham Adams proposed a book project.

 

 

Inspiration: These poems range in composition date from 2010 to 2015, so what resonates now as far as inspiration goes is a list that I’ll spare you—but they are distinct, and each poem holds one or another source (or many simultaneously) in (I hope) different ways. Jean Day’s Enthusiasm: Odes & Otium was formative for me when thinking about devotion and source materials and how to think and write alongside inspiration itself, to construe it as an interlocutor, or a threat, or a friend, or a fetish, etc.

 

 

Influences: When I first started seriously writing poetry, I was reading Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes, Laura Riding Jackson; and I was obsessed with Alice Notley and Carla Harryman. Then Miles Champion introduced me to Tom Raworth and Jean Day—they both had a big impact. I had another turn when I really read Lisa Robertson, who led me to read Hannah Arendt. Richard Maxwell, the playwright, was another turning point; and the work of Big Dance Theater, Thomas Bradshaw, Kristen Kosmas. For a few years now, Ingeborg Bachmann, Marguerite Duras. And my friends are influential. They’re all brilliant. Can I say brilliant?

 

 

Writer’s Block Remedy: I’m easily comforted and astonished. By that turn from feeling like New York City’s rag doll, in particular; from that real desire to leave my life and start a new one; from that exhaustion; from walking into a diner or taking a train. I have to be in that place to write; I have to have a connection to future good feeling in general if I expect myself to write. Also: film and bibliomancy, both. Or Robert Ashley, an example. Opening to pages/sounds/images of work that I love will always help. Going to the library, feeling overwhelmed. But I can go for months without writing; I am often waiting to feel angry, or any emotional event, or just a deadline to push me. But accepting the stretches of not writing is okay, too. I mean: If I feel alert and awake and thoughtful and without remorse, then I am listening, which for me is also writing. I compulsively transcribe overheard dialogue or I note exchanges between people or how they are physically positioned. If I’ve gone months without this sort of openness, then I’m probably depressed and not writing. To help me accept that, I remember something Doris Lessing said—to paraphrase, you must use these energies while you have them, you will lose them; you are more clever now than you will be later. Terrifying.

 

 

Writing Prompt: Feeling constrained.

 

 

Advice: I took a strange route, and had faith I’d eventually get to work with people who cared about the poems. Having faith in those relationships is important.

 

 

What’s next: I’m working on an essay/score that reads and writes through the reading of the painter Alan Reid. The piece will appear in a monograph of his work that should be out in the spring.

 

 

Age: 36.

 

Hometown: I was born in Lawrence, Kansas, and grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and New Orleans.

 

Residence: New York City.

 

Job: I usually have two to three part-time jobs. I am currently a staff writer for the Poetry Foundation, I freelance copyedit and proofread, and I coordinate a master’s program in international finance and economic policy at Columbia University.

 

Does your job allow time to write? I’ve made it this far. But the answer is no, not at all. I would always prefer to be writing, to put it gently.

 

Time spent writing the book: About four or five years.

 

Time spent finding a home for it: I was very, very lucky in that Ugly Duckling approached me for the book. This was initially around 2012 or 2013, but I still had to finish writing it. We changed the date of publication a few times. They were patient with me.

Three favorite words: “Mom” and “or” and “Dad.”

Corina Copp reads an early version of her poems from The Green Ray, published by Ugly Duckling Presse, for the sixth Antibody Series in 2014.

***

Morgan Parker
Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night

Switchback Books (Gatewood Prize)

“If I hear you’re talking shit about me
in your confessional interview,
please know
seven birds have fallen dead at my feet
right out of the sky.”
–from “If My Housemate Fucks With Me I Would Get So Real (Audition Tape Take 1)”

How it began: This book started as my MFA thesis at NYU. It was embarrassingly large—something like 120 pages—so I spent the summer after graduation editing it, reordering it, and trimming it down in preparation for sending it out to contests and presses. The first book is a weird thing—mine contains some of the first poems I ever wrote, back in college. Of course, when I was writing those, I had no idea I was writing a book. I was playing around with new forms and registers and confessions, and it was only in grad school that I started thinking about the poems as a collection. There isn’t a “project” in this book, there isn’t a linear narrative or one central event, so in conceptualizing the book, I spent a lot of time thinking about my obsessions, taking in a lot of art and TV and movies and music and poems, and meditating on the themes they have in common.

Inspiration: Television. The Real World and The Real Housewives franchises have been particularly inspirational for me—something about the strangeness and boldness of reality TV, its dark comedy, is a really important lens in my work. Jay Z and Beyoncé are also super important figures in my work—or rather, symbols of them, the idea of them. In general, media and pop culture always have a lot of space in my poetic brain. They’ve got everything I want to talk about: loneliness, performance, representations of femininity, insecurity, family, sociocultural inequity, glitter.

Influences: My collaborator Angel Nafis; my peers Danez Smith, Charif Shanahan, Nate Marshall, Natalie Eilbert, Rio Cortez, Monica McClure, Wendy Xu (I could go on forever here); my big brother Matthew Rohrer; my poetry auntie Eileen Myles; Terrance Hayes, Tracy K. Smith, Evie Shockley, Matthew Zapruder, Cate Marvin, Anne Sexton, Lucille Clifton, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes; visual artists Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Keith Haring, Glenn Ligon, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, William Pope.L.

Writer’s Block Remedy: If I feel stuck, I stop writing for a while. Or I write in another genre for a bit. I read. I go look at art. I have good conversation with friends over wine. Lately I’ve been trying to honor silence rather than being anxious about it. The itchy, restless feeling always comes back; the poems always emerge. I’m realizing more and more that “writing” is only a tiny aspect of writing poetry.

Writing Prompt: Formal poetry. Specifically sonnets and pantoums. Usually, I edit the drafts until they’re unrecognizable as formal poems, but constraint really helps my writing process. Honestly, I see prompts as rules to break, something to rebel against.

Advice: Submit widely, but also be strategic and thoughtful: Don’t submit to a press you aren’t familiar with or whose work you don’t love; don’t submit to a press whose aesthetic isn’t up your alley. A press is really a home for a book—and for you, the poet, as well—so I think it’s important (and often neglected in conversation) to remember the relationship continues past manuscript acceptance. It’s an intimate thing. Also, know that as you’re submitting, you should keep editing. Don’t be so stubborn you can’t see room for improvement. Finally, make the waiting time productive. Write new poems, go to readings, meet new writers, build community.

What’s next: I’m editing my second collection, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, and getting it ready for publication with Tin House Books in 2017. I’m also at work on a young adult novel loosely based on my teen years spent coming to terms with my identity and depression in a conservative, religious suburb—it’s my first foray into fiction, and an exciting challenge. There’s also a rumor floating around that there may be an essay collection in my future.

Age: 28.

Hometown: Highland, California.

Residence: New York City.

Job: Editor for Little A Books and Day One, adjunct assistant professor of undergraduate creative writing at Columbia University.

Does your job allow time to write? Sometimes. I write at night, on the weekends, and in transit (buses, trains, planes). I wish I were one of those people who could wake up and write before work, but I’m a snooze-button person. Ideally, I block out a day each weekend to write or edit. I’ve also been known to take vacation days to hole away uninterrupted.

Time spent writing the book: They were written and edited over the course of five years.

Time spent finding a home for it: A year.

Three favorite words: “There’s free wine.”

Morgan Parker reads two poems from Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night, published by Switchback Books.

***

Richie Hofmann
Second Empire

Alice James Books (Beatrice Hawley Award)

“I have nothing
to confess. I don’t yet know that I possess
a body built for love.”
–from “Idyll”

How it began: I began writing the first poems in this book while I was working on the book collection at the James Merrill House in Stonington, Connecticut—a magical, haunted place full of Merrill’s things, his furniture, his books. It was inspiring to inhabit that physical space with the spirit of someone whose art had meant the world to me. His “The Book of Ephraim” was one of the first contemporary poems I loved. To be showering in his shower, sleeping in his bed, staring into that mirror. There, among his art and belongings, my desire to write poetry was given new dramatic force.

Inspiration: Love; sexuality; history; music, especially opera and art song.

Influences: My teachers, foremost. Jorie Graham’s Erosion. Benjamin Britten’s operas and song cycles. Daniel Mendelsohn’s essays. French and Italian poetry in translation. Stephen Sondheim lyrics. Installations by Félix González-Torres.

Writer’s Block Remedy: Sometimes it’s important for me to get outside of poetry, or outside of literature altogether. To listen to music, look at a painting or sculpture or installation, see a concert, attend a lecture on something strange but intriguing. These other arts not only provoke new subjects, but they might offer new ways of thinking formally as well.

Writing Prompt: Write a poem in which your own name is invoked and explored.

Advice: Cut almost everything. Make your book as lean and dynamic as possible. Give yourself time to grow toward and away from poems, and see what new object you can create by subtracting and pruning and chiseling away.

What’s next: My new manuscript of poems explores my family’s history in Germany: my ancestors who owned a small bakery on the Rhine and my own childhood years spent in Munich. It’s about inheritance, history, power, violence, privilege, gender and sexuality, childhood, bookmaking, typography, and Mozart.

Age: 28.

Hometown: Haddon Heights, New Jersey.

Residence: Chicago.

Job: PhD student in English at Emory University in Atlanta.

Does your job allow time to write? It often does—in that reading and researching and working through critical questions is an essential part of writing poetry for me. Though I’d have to say, I like teaching even better, because I find interacting with people (usually) more stimulating than solitary research and writing.

Time spent writing the book: Four to five years.

Time spent finding a home for it: A year and a half.

Three favorite words: Exquisite, please, future.

 

Dana Isokawa is the assistant editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Shadows of Words: Our Twelfth Annual Look at Debut Poets

by

Dana Isokawa

12.14.16

The debut has a certain allure: an air of freshness, the promise of an exciting, original voice. Here is the new. Here is something you haven’t yet heard. And while that certainly might be the case with a poetry debut, it can also be true of a poet’s second, fifth, or tenth book—artistic innovation can happen at any stage in a writer’s life. What does make a debut uniquely exciting, though, is its sense of beginning—that the arc of a poet’s career has just begun, that the ball has just been tossed into the air. For our twelfth annual look at debut poets, we asked ten poets to share the inspirations and processes behind their first collections, and what emerged were stories of beginnings: how a book begins and how a poem begins, certainly, but also how a writer’s attraction to poetry begins. “I wanted to know if my sadness could ever be useful,” explains Ocean Vuong. “[It’s the desire] to get closer to whatever it is that’s always just beyond reach or sight,” says Justin Boening. “It was fun,” says Phillip B. Williams.

The ten poets in this year’s feature wrote some of the most compelling debuts published in 2016 and represent a range of styles and backgrounds. From the sparse, demanding elegance of Eleanor Chai’s lyrics, to the irreverent, kaleidoscopic roaming of Tommy Pico’s book-length poem, to the linguistic opulence and sheer nerve of Safiya Sinclair’s work, these ten encompass many of the impulses and registers of contemporary poetry. We asked for their insight on inspiration, publishing, and writing through impasses, and two commonalities—among many—surfaced. One: that inspiration might lie in paying attention to what appears small or insignificant—how Carolina Ebeid will listen to every “little bell” of an Arvo Pärt piano piece for inspiration, how Ari Banias will pursue the feeling elicited by something as minor as the behind-the-knee wrinkles in someone’s pants. And two: the advice to not be in a rush to publish. To take one’s time and question, as Solmaz Sharif does, what it means to be an artist and not just a person who publishes a book. Or to wait, like Jana Prikryl, for the poem to emerge that helps the others fall into place. These poets’ words are a reminder that it’s not a race, but a process of fashioning poems that can connect with the world, that can confront the “roots and wide-ranging shadows of words,” as Safiya Sinclair puts it, and explore language as we know it.

Ari Banias

Ari Banias
Anybody
W. W. Norton

“Mostly a name feels like the crappy overhang I huddle under
while rain skims the front of me.

I admit it keeps me visible, the cool compromise
of efficient lighting, the agreement to call this that.”

—from “Recognition Is the Misrecognition You Can Bear”

How it began: I wrote Anybody out of the conditions of my life, and out of a will to connect more than divide. I was writing into loneliness and the social, and as a way to be alone with myself while also being and thinking with others. It was a process of concretizing and externalizing those conversations I was having in my head and out loud, with people dead and living, in my life or not, with the culture at large, and with other selves—past, present, future, parallel. As a younger queer writer especially, there were books I needed but couldn’t find, either because no one had published them or because they hadn’t yet been written. So I was probably writing this book, however unconsciously, to address that self, those selves.

Inspiration: The need to counter alienation and death. Humor, my immediate surroundings, memory. Sometimes just wanting to figure out how I felt about something could be enough. Poems could come from a question, an irritation, or even from a desire to get at my response to an object—like, Why does this tree, that I’m fairly certain doesn’t know I exist, evoke deep feeling in me? It’s embarrassing! And, What am I bringing to it—I mean all the baggage (cultural, historical, and otherwise) I’m carting around when I look at a tree (or a broken chair, or the behind-the-knee wrinkles in someone’s pants in front of me in line, or, really, anything) and find myself thrown off by unexpected feeling. As long as I’m attentive and willing to follow through, past what’s easy or comfortable, a poem can start almost anywhere.

In her piece “The Untroubled Mind,” the painter Agnes Martin writes, “Nothing that happens in your life makes inspiration / When your eyes are open / You see beauty in anything.” I’d add that I think of “beauty” here not in the classical sense but more like meaning, importance. Martin [writes later in] this same piece: “The wiggle of a worm as important as the assassination of a president.” They happen in the same world, never entirely independent of one another. And maybe the one I think of as small is in fact enormous. Even if a poem doesn’t directly point at these connections, to keep them near, to refuse to forget or evade them—that did and does inspire me.

Influences: More than I could possibly name. Some voices: Nina Simone, Arthur Russell, Odetta, Elizabeth Cotten, and the rembetika singer Roza Eskenazi. Some books: Alice Notley’s Mysteries of Small Houses, James Baldwin’s essays, George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous, Brenda Hillman’s Loose Sugar, Lorine Niedecker’s Paean to Place, June Jordan’s Collected Poems, Joy Ladin’s Transmigrations, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “terrible sonnets,” Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, Hilton Als’s The Women, Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation, David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives, Guy Davenport’s translations of Archilochos and Sappho. And Roland Barthes, Elizabeth Bishop, Fred Moten, Frank O’Hara, Yannis Ritsos, Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams.

Writer’s Block Remedy: Conversations with others ignite and recalibrate me, without fail. A few winters ago I came to a sort of crisis point with poetry. I wasn’t sure how or why, but poems began to repel me—I couldn’t write them, and I could hardly read them. Lineation looked melodramatic and grotesque. I couldn’t stomach even a whiff of solemnity. Poems were like giant echo chambers. Not coincidentally, that was my third year in a row living in fairly isolated circumstances away from loved ones, and I was feeling disconnected. I didn’t know what else to do so I started writing letter-poems to close friends. Immediately detail, texture, and volition returned to the act of writing. It was like the electricity came on again. Somewhere I’d lost the sense of purpose and direction created by that fundamental exchange of one person speaking to another. A good lesson.

Advice: It seems obnoxious to tell people not to get discouraged by how long it takes to publish a book, because it can be a very long time, and who wouldn’t get discouraged? For me publication never seemed a given—only writing did. What I told myself, and still do, is this: Keep working. Follow the shape of your mind’s particulars (its rhythms, its oddities) like a bloodhound, and take the poems as far as you possibly can, so that they are utterly yours, so that you’re writing in that singular way that singular thing no one but you can write. Each time. As Hopkins (whom I’ll take way out of context here) said, “more wreck and less discourse.”

What’s next: Along with writing new poems, I am translating contemporary poets from the Modern Greek. It’s a relief to get outside my own head and work out problems of language and expression through someone else’s poems, while still being in music. And I welcome the different sense of responsibility. Finding my way back into Greek, which was my first language, is also its own private homecoming, with all the associated awkwardness and joy of that.

Age: 38. Ari Banias Cover

Hometown: I was born in Los Angeles, and grew up in the suburbs of Chicago.

Residence: Berkeley, California.

Job: I work at Small Press Distribution.

Time spent writing the book: Nine years.

Time spent finding a home for it: I started sending out a mess of consecutively numbered pages I thought was a book nine years ago. The early drafts look very little like what came to be published. It took about four years of sending out versions of what’s now the book before it was accepted.

 

Ocean VuongOcean Vuong
Night Sky With Exit Wounds
Copper Canyon Press

“There is so much
I need to tell you—but I only earned
one life.”

—from “Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown): oil on canvas: Mark Rothko: 1952”

How it began: I wanted to know if my sadness could ever be useful.

Inspiration: Fire escapes. I was walking in New York City one day years ago and saw this big, white fire escape. And I thought to myself, “That’s it. That’s what a poem should do. Be a place where we can move further toward ourselves, which really means moving further toward our fears.” And medical marijuana. And Gushers fruit snacks.

Influences: Li-Young Lee, Federico García Lorca, Frank O’Hara, Yusef Komunyakaa, Arthur Rimbaud, Anne Carson, Emily Dickinson, 
Matsuo Bashō, Gwendolyn Brooks, Garrett Hongo, Amiri Baraka, Troye Sivan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Thomston, Thao Nguyen, Kobayashi Issa, Etta James, Ben Lerner, Luther Vandross, Michel Foucault, Alexander Chee, Little Richard, Virginia Woolf, Roland Barthes, Simone de Beauvoir, Susan Sontag, Maggie Nelson, Mark Rothko, Frank Ocean, Bad Future, Whitney Houston, Patsy Cline, Lyoto Machida, C. D. Wright, Amy Winehouse, Yoko Ono, Al Green, Sinn Sisamouth, Childish Gambino, Ralph Stanley, Max Richter, Nils Frahm, Joel P West, James Blake, and Vince Staples.

Writer’s Block Remedy: When I am stuck, I don’t like to force out work or words. I just walk away from the desk—sometimes not returning for weeks at a time. I find a quiet place in the day and stop. If I’m at home, I lie down on the carpet. Then I do this thing where I just say thank you to all the things and people who have helped me. Of course, simply saying thank you does not awaken any creative force; it just reminds me that the work I am doing is not validated by quantity, but rather by the connection it builds between the world and myself. When my own work is not coming along, I try to stop and recognize the people doing the same challenging, at times unforgiving, art—and I feel happy. I think it’s hard, in our day and age, not to think, It’s me against the world, or, I have to do this for my career because everyone else is hammering away and if I stop now, I will fall behind and be forgotten. But that’s a toxic and self-defeating gaze. I think we are more productive—even in stillness—when we can recognize one another, when we say to each other, Thank you for doing this with me. Thank you for carrying on when I cannot.

Advice: Hustling can be good—but make sure what you’re pushing is gold (to you).Ocean Vuong Cover

What’s next: I’m working on being a better son.

Age: 28.

Hometown: Hartford, Connecticut.

Residence: New York City.

Job: Writer and teacher.

Time spent writing the book: Eight years after believing that I could be a poet. But I think really it took me all of my life.

Time spent finding a home for it: Eight months. I was lucky.

 

 

 

Jana Prikryl

Jana Prikryl
The After Party
Tim Duggan Books

“To all the girls Bernini loved before
I’d say, caveat emptor.”

from “Benvenuto Tisi’s Vestal Virgin Claudia Quinta Pulling a Boat with the Statue of Cybele”

 

How it began: The book started as individual poems written over about a decade. I was finally galvanized into bringing some of them together by the long sequence that forms the second half of the book, “Thirty Thousand Islands.” The sequence gave me a new way of thinking about loss and literary history and nature and men and Canada and Europe; as it grew I sensed it was a foil to the more ad hoc poems I had written up till then. So the book emerged from this encounter between different forms of poetry, which seems apt since many of my poems tend to spark from the friction between different voices or points of view.

Inspiration: There are some ekphrastic poems in The After Party—one about a great, overlooked Buster Keaton movie, another about a not very good Renaissance painting. I like taking in all kinds of art—especially paintings, photographs, movies—and thinking about its implications, formal and historical. But I’m also taken with something Frank O’Hara once said: “Sometimes I think that writing a poem is such a moral crisis I get completely sick of the whole situation.” What kind of experience or vision or formal experiment can really justify taking up the reader’s time? Parts of my book attempt to think about European history and the ways my own ancestors experienced it; what gives me the authority to speak for those individuals? In other words, what kind of poem could do so? I find these sorts of questions inspiring.

Influences: I don’t feel qualified to name my own influences—and the writing I revere most seems too distant a beacon to enter into my own stuff—but there are writers I’ve loved over so many years they feel like family. I’d include Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charlotte Brontë, John Berryman, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, and Don Marquis.

Writer’s Block Remedy: I tend to sit with the impasse, partly because I have a day job and write essays as well (and recently had a baby) so life can throw me off course very easily, and partly because I think impasses are trying to tell me something so it would be imprudent to ignore them. But when I really must go on I get energy from hazelnut gelato; whiskey; the Metropolitan Museum; swimming; dips into Flann O’Brien or Jane Austen or Laurence Sterne; dips into Twitter, which so far is the clearest source of dissent I’ve found against the fascism that the Republican Party is happily riding into power; dear friends whose work is new and great, and conversely random lines in magazines that irritate me. Getting pissed off is, in the absence of anything else, a reliable stimulant.

Advice: Every voice needs something different so it’s unlikely my experience will apply to anyone else. But what’s been most valuable to me is time—to let the words stew, and let myself stew, and in fact resist publication for as long as possible. Once you’re ready I recommend an Excel spreadsheet. Maybe this is common knowledge but it was a revelation to me: A spreadsheet helps to compartmentalize the painful chore of sending things out and really cleanses it of emotion. You just record rejections and can very clearly see where else something might be sent.

What’s next: Mostly diaper changes and tummy times. Occasionally noodling away at things that may or may not make it into a second book.

Age: 41. Jana Prikryl Cover

Hometown: My teens were spent in Ancaster, Ontario, which feels hometown-iest to me. I was born in Ostrava (in what was then Czechoslovakia), and when I was five my family fled and lived in an Austrian village for a year. From the age of six I grew up in a few towns in southern Ontario—so it’s complicated.

Residence: New York City.

Job: Senior editor at the New York Review of Books.

Time spent writing the book: Too long. But the too-longness varies a lot: One of the poems is around fifteen years old, some started almost a decade ago and had to marinate for years before they were finished, and some were written in half an hour, with minor revision. In general I revise heavily and take long gaps between glances at poems, so I can hear them afresh when I return. 

Time spent finding a home for it: I spent a decade avoiding gathering my poems into a manuscript—it felt somehow presumptuous. About a year after I started bringing the poems together, Tim Duggan read my work in the London Review of Books and the New Yorker and got in touch, asking if I had a manuscript. I took a few more months to revise it and once I sent it to him he got back to me quickly. So I’ve been very lazy and very lucky.

Carolina EbeidCarolina Ebeid
You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior
Noemi Press

“We live in a copy
            of Eden, a copy

that depends on violence.”           

—from “Albeit”

How it began: The book isn’t defined by a unifying project. Many of its poems did not begin with a particular book in mind. However, when I was placing the poems side by side to see how many pages I had, I noted an orbital pull forming. They were already set in a certain orbit of tone, subject matter, and high-lyric style. Identifying this motion allowed me to see more clearly which subsequent poems would be accepted into this circle.

Inspiration: For a few years I listened to a musical piece by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt called Für Alina. It is a composition for the piano, spare and slow. It sounds like little bells being struck. Pärt has said that, when he was making this work, he “had a need to concentrate on each sound so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower.” I have thought the same about poems. Also, the visual vocabulary of certain films has inspired many of these poems, deeply. Movies such as The Spirit of the Beehive, Ratcatcher, In the Mood for Love, and Days of Heaven hold something arcane, a strange quietness. Perhaps they withhold (it’s a better word). What has moved me to write after seeing these films is how much they withhold. I am drawn to poems that can dance like that, in a relationship of what is said and what is left unsaid.

Influences: The books of Lucie Brock-Broido, Anne Carson, and Briget Pegeen Kelly have been early and lasting influences. In my PhD work, I’ve delved into the fragments and letters of Emily Dickinson, the poetry of Raúl Zurita and Cecilia Vicuña, the multimedia art of Caroline Bergvall, as well as the various adaptations of Antigone—which I hope will all be future influences. 

Writer’s Block Remedy: Always, the engrossing work of translating poetry from Spanish is a spark. I also turn to looking through old lexicons, field guides no longer in print, medieval bestiaries or glossaries of birds, and early photography. 

Advice: Three things. One: Listen to your innermost self—a self that has been forming aesthetic principles by the books you’ve read, by your various 
experiences and identities—and try to lower the volume of well-intentioned critiques that stifle your work. Two: If you are fortunate, you will find a trusted reader-editor-confidant-friend, one who will open your work and imagination. Take care to develop that relationship. My primary reader also happens to be my partner, Jeffrey Pethybridge. Three: Try not to send out your manuscript blindly, which can deplete one’s inner and outer resources. Rather, choose presses whose author lists exhilarate you, and remember that small presses are in a golden age; they’re making vital and sparkling books.

What’s next: A long sequence of small poems called “The M Notebooks,” M being a character made up of various persons, such as the biblical Saint Miriam (a myrrh-bearer), the Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta, and Russian writer Nadezhda Mandelstam. The sequence is a convergence, confluence, conflagration of speakers. Also, a couple of essays on the work of Ana Mendieta, as well as research on the literature of sleep, descent, and dream-space.

Age: 40. Carolina Ebeid Cover

Hometown: West New York, New Jersey.

Residence: Denver.

Job: I teach while I also pursue a PhD in the creative writing program at the University of Denver.

Time spent writing the book: The bulk of the poems were written in Austin during my three MFA years at the Michener Center. 


Time spent finding a home for it: About three years.

In Lieu of Flowers, Palestine the Metaphor from Carolina Ebeid on Vimeo.

 

Solmaz SharifSolmaz Sharif
Look
Graywolf Press

“It matters what you call a thing.”

—from “Look”

 

How it began: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—namely, how quickly the nation mobilized to invade these countries when just months earlier we were living in the myth of indefinite and obvious peace. That peace, of course, did not exist then, either, but I remember, for example, an Army recruiter visiting my AP Government class in spring 2001 and saying, as part of his pitch to join the Army and see the world, that were we to join the Army, we would not be fighting in any wars, anyway.

Inspiration: Conversations with friends—especially Samira Yamin, Ari Banias, and Brandon Som. The various books and artists they have pressed upon me. The stellar work they put into the world.

Influences: June Jordan, Muriel Rukeyser, Mahmoud Darwish, C. D. Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Charles Reznikoff, William Carlos Williams, Adrienne Rich, Leonel Rugama, Walt Whitman, and Claudia Rankine.

Writer’s Block Remedy: If the causes are perfectionistic, I pull out the collected poems of a poet I greatly admire and flip through to remind myself how many mediocre poems their oeuvre contains. It is my duty, I remind myself, to write even those mediocre, messy poems. These failures are the ones that create openings in the conversation for subsequent writers and poets to enter—I’m not trying to kill the conversation, after all. I pull out journals—André Gide’s, Franz Kafka’s, Susan Sontag’s—to remind myself how long the process is and how often the sense of failure or impasse hits. I watch a movie.

Advice: Write a book you want to fight for. Fight for it. I am, after all this, though, a little hesitant to keep the conversation on first books or debuts. I am a product of an industry that emphasizes first books—it’s where the prizes are, it’s what the MFA programs are gearing you up for with your thesis, it’s what our conversations with our peers are about, it’s what we buy because we want to support our friends. I’m not entirely sure who this “we” is, as someone both inside and outside of it, as someone not wanting to presume you are a similar product, fellow writer. But there is something, something shifting the collective attention (of presses, of journals) to younger poets—an attention that does not exist for a poet’s second or fourth book and that doesn’t again until I don’t know when. A blessing, maybe, that turning away of the gaze—it’s likely due to sales. We are not necessarily taught how to be artists, how to commit to artists and attend to their failures, their sustained conversation—a conversation that would undoubtedly challenge and even dismantle said industry. We are taught instead how to publish our first books. Product, not process. I don’t have answers about “how to be an artist”; I’m not trying to make it sound like I do. But I do want to have that conversation. What do you want to do as a writer in the world? What do you see the arc of your writing life to be? How is your first book a launch to that arc? To discuss the book itself, the writers themselves—myself included—is a misdirection. Or as Forough Farrokhzad said: “Remember the flight / the bird will die.”

What’s next: Translations of Forough Farrokhzad. And some secret stuff.

Age: 33. Solmaz Sharif Cover

Hometown: I haven’t worked out the answer to this question for myself. Los Angeles is probably the closest I will get to a hometown.

Residence: Oakland.

Job: I’m a lecturer in creative writing at Stanford University.

Time spent writing the book: I started working with the Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms in earnest at the end of 2007. The earliest poems in the book are from 2008. But some of the pieces and images are reworked from 2003, even. By 2012 or 2013 I had pretty much worked out all the conceptual elements and the general frame of the book, though I added and removed poems up until the last deadline. The most freeing realization was that I could ditch poems that had been previously published in journals and that I liked, generally speaking. I could create a book rather than a collection, I mean.

Time spent finding a home for it: I started sending the book out in 2009, which was massively premature, but I don’t regret it. I drew up a very short list of dream first-book prizes and vowed to continue sending out yearly until I was disqualified from doing so.

 

 
Phillip B. Williams

Phillip B. Williams
Thief in the Interior
Alice James Books

“I’m listening to Alice Coltrane to feel Blacker than God”

—from “Eleggua and Eshu Ain’t the Same”

 

How it began: It was fun. I used to write several manuscripts at a time. One year I was working on three books simultaneously. My first attempt at a book was in 2008 (“I Empire,” read as “first empire”), the second was in 2009 (“Thief in the Interior,” which was not the same book as the one that was eventually published), and the third was in 2010 (“In Vulnerabilities”). Eventually I released a chapbook called Bruised Gospels in 2010, and because I do not want poems in chapbooks to appear in my full-lengths, I was “forced” to restructure the main manuscript, “I Empire,” which remained the backbone of my debut. It had many, many names, to my friend Rickey Laurentiis’s entertainment. He and I exchanged different versions of our books for years. I distinctly remember two titles he had before Boy With Thorn that I do not think he would mind me sharing. The first was “Mirror God” and the second was “Down Atlantis.” If there were any others, I cannot remember. My failed titles were “Grace,” “Grace and Empire,” “Dancing on an Upturned Bed,” “Darling,” “Shame No Tongue,” “Lie Down,” and “Witness. Going through this process with Rickey over the course of four to five years helped push me along. All I knew is that I wanted a book before I turned thirty. My book was published a month before my thirtieth birthday.

Inspiration: The book On Black Men by David Marriott was always on my mind while writing. The work of my peers. The work of those who have become ancestors.

Influences: Essex Hemphill, Jorie Graham, Terrance Hayes, Sonia Sanchez, the racism of Wallace Stevens seems its own kind of artist or shadow of the artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mary Jo Bang, Wangechi Mutu, Nina Simone, Leontyne Price, Björk, John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Kerry James Marshall, Federico García Lorca, Lucille Clifton, Henry Dumas, Carl Phillips, Douglas Kearney, J. Michael Martinez, Dawn Lundy Martin, Octavio Paz, Camille T. Dungy, Evie Shockley, Frank Bidart, Alvin Ailey, Judith Jamison, Alonzo King, Clifford Williams, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Sylvia Plath and her fascination with the word nigger, Claudia Rankine, Carolyn Rogers, Thylias Moss, James Baldwin, afropessimism as a theoretical framework, Mahmoud Darwish, Toni Morrison, Meshell Ndegeocello, Suji Kwock Kim, Larry Levis, Sunni Patterson. 

Writer’s Block Remedy: I go for months without writing and then write nonstop for about a month or so. An impasse for me is a sign that I simply have nothing to say, and that is fine. I had to learn that it was fine not to write. As far as what keeps me going, I’m still not sure. Something just clicks on and stays on until it runs its course. I frequently add to a Notes document any lines I come up with or words I need to look up. My memory is very poor, so I do not retain what I read. Sometimes, in order to assist with retention, I have to activate the knowledge, meaning implement it into something tangible like a poem. The joy in this is that most things I read are fresh when I return to them. The downside is that it takes me forever to do scholarly work and I’m not the best person to speak with about books or even single poems unless they are in front of me.

Advice: Just write. Study first, then write. We cannot control the reception of our work, but we can decimate our imaginations by trying to write “for the people.” Who are these monolithic people? Why think so little of them and call that kindness? Recently, there seems to be this idea that one has to write for someone else or a specific group. So many folks want to be mouthpieces for a community for which they’ve set low standards reminiscent of the oppressive forces they claim to want to counteract. In that writing, it is assumed what these potential readers will and will not understand. In the same instant that this idea wants to be communal and welcoming, it is also condescending and ostracizing. We have enough low expectations set on us by others, especially if we are persons of color, women, part of genderqueer and LGBT communities, and/or any other marginalized group. Almost every poem I’ve written my mother has seen. She may or may not understand each one but she has read those poems and encouraged me to keep going. She tells me what she loves and what touches her. So do my nonliterary friends and family members. It’s not up to me to assume there are restraints on their ability to understand me. My poems aren’t a standardized test that my friends need help cheating on, or that can even be “passed.” Though we have limitations, language barriers, literacy barriers, and other factors, we are also complex and capable if allowed to be.

What’s next: I’m working on trying to eat right and go to bed on time.

Age: 30. Phillip B. Williams Cover

Hometown: Chicago.

Residence: Bennington, Vermont.

Job: I am a visiting professor in English at Bennington College. I try to make some kind of living off my work but not to the point of distraction. Writing does keep me alive, even during those times it does not make money.

Time spent writing the book: The longest poem in the book I started in 2005 and it was a single-page poem. It continued to grow across different iterations of the book until it became a twenty-page poem while I attended Washington University in St. Louis for my MFA. I was convinced to shrink it down to fourteen pages and officially finished it in the spring of 2014, nine years later. Many of the poems I wrote that were originally in the book did not make the final edit. Most of the poems that made it I wrote during my MFA, so about two years.

Time spent finding a home for it: It depends on which version of the book we’re talking about. In my naiveté I submitted manuscripts to contests as early as 2009. They were unready projects that I would have regretted if they were published. It only took a few months for what was to become Thief in the Interior to find a publisher. When it started finalizing for prizes and open submissions I knew it would eventually get picked up. 

 

Eleanor Chai Eleanor Chai
Standing Water
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“This, I’ve seen. I see it always. I carry it
in my torso as surely as a Buddhist lives
     in the skin of his own corpse.”

—from “Little Girl’s Auricle”

 

How it began: I can’t say I was compelled to write a book. I was compelled to write poems. I am not a native speaker of English, but I no longer speak my native language (Korean) for complicated and disorienting reasons. Finding shapes in language that hold for longer than the instant of speaking has always felt crucial to me.

Inspiration: I am happiest when I am completely and obsessively engaged. Nothing absorbs me as thoroughly as trying to get a poem on the page. So I suppose living the life I wish to live is what inspires me.

Influences: I spent years transcribing the complete correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore. For a few hours each night for six years I was dropped into their intimate “Dear—.” Their devotion to their poems and to poetry continues to move me. Alongside one of her letters, as an afterthought, Bishop wrote: “And did you like the 4 Quartets?” exactly so, with the number 4 and the word Quartets. The “And,” the casual usage, the numeral 4—not the word Four written out—thrilled me. It felt spontaneous, in real time (which it was) and I felt a sliver of how it may have been to read the Four Quartets as a newly made thing, without the edifice of criticism bracing it. The Four Quartets constitutes at least one of my Ten Thousand Things. To see it considered before it aged into its full regalia made me feel closer to its nascence, its being made. I’ve also had the great gift of deep friendship with Frank Bidart. He is one of the finest, most exacting makers I know. His obsessive devotion to the needs of a poem stuns me.  I love T. S. Eliot too much. I love Louise Glück. I love James Baldwin. I love Ezra Pound. I love Clarice Lispector. I love Mark Strand. I love Walt Whitman. I love Frank Bidart. I love Marguerite Duras. I love Winnicott and Freud. I love Bishop. I love Robert Frost. I love Louise Bourgeois. I love Toni Morrison. I love Van Gogh’s letters. I LOVE The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I love ethnographies.

Writer’s Block Remedy: I turn to silence, or rather, I surrender to it. Silence, and superior voices. And panic.

Advice: I wish I had some useful advice. Mine was a strange path.

What’s next: I am working on one new poem. Hopefully I will be able to write it and hopefully more will come. I am also trying to compose, or rather assemble, Mark Strand’s oral memoir from tapes we made in Nova Scotia and some of his unpublished writing. I am following the practice and principles he used in making his beautiful, singular collages from paper he himself made. I think of his sentences as his “paper” and I am trying to tear that material and place it on the page into a compelling narrative of his life. It’s such fine material; the task is daunting but animating.

Age: 49. Eleanor Chai Cover

Hometown: My hometown is a complicated question. I was moved around quite a lot as a child. I suppose I would say Seoul, South Korea, though I’ve not been home in many years.

Residence: New York City.

Job: I started a school in Westport, Connecticut. My daughters are now both in college so I am trying to give myself the time and space to write poems, finish editing the Bishop-Moore letters with the meticulous Saskia Hamilton, and work on Mark Strand’s oral memoir. Working at the school demanded all of my energy when I was there.

Time spent writing the book: I have no idea how long it took me to write this book. Decades. I knew that my daughters’ time in my everyday care would not last forever. I’ve always been achingly clear that I had eighteen years to share our days, to participate, even shape what would be our holy, our minute particular (William Blake). I am devoted to the minute particular. Much that I value in life resides there. I did not have a childhood with my mother, so being a mother to my children every day and night seemed a privilege and a miracle.

Time spent finding a home for it: I was very fortunate that Jonathan Galassi, my editor [for the Bishop-Moore letters], liked my poems and took my book.

Justin BoeningJustin Boening
Not on the Last Day, but on the Very Last
Milkweed Editions (National Poetry Series)

“does sadness leave us?
Is that the source of sadness?”

—from “Banquet”

 

How it began: The book’s title is taken from the thorny end of a Kafka parable called “The Coming of the Messiah.” It finishes: “The messiah will come on the day after he is no longer required, he will come on the day after his arrival, he will come not on the last day, but on the very last.” I’ve seen others attempt to negotiate these paradoxes by changing the definition of last day or very last. I guess that makes as much sense as anything else. But for me, this is a portrait of a savior who comes, not belatedly, but by not coming at all. I think it may have been this parable that put me on the road toward writing a book of failures, of mistakes, which is how I’ve come to understand the collection—a book where one learns to become a god by being unrecognizable, for example, or where one rules the world by being the only one in it. I don’t know. I’m probably the last one who should be talking about such things. More generally, though, I think what compelled me to write this book may have been distance from God. For me, poetry is an expression of this desire to reach out, not to communicate per se, but to get closer to whatever it is that’s always just beyond reach or sight. Maybe that sounds too lofty, but it’s a longing I’ve felt all my life, and a longing I’ve often associated with the essence of whatever it is I’ve called “human.” Stevens finishes his poem “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” by saying, “We make a dwelling in the evening air / In which being there together is enough.” I think that about sums it up for me—what compelled me to write these poems.

Inspiration: The unshakable belief that poetry is absolutely necessary, that it’s inextricably linked to language itself, and that, therefore, it’s one of the most human things we’re allowed to participate in.

Influences: As far as writers go, I return most often to Franz Kafka, Wallace Stevens, Clarice Lispector, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Mark Strand, and Lucie Brock-Broido.

Writer’s Block Remedy: I almost never push it. If a poem is frustrating me I walk away, watch some YouTube, read writers who know what they’re doing. Distraction is good for poetry, I think, maybe because it breeds uncertainty. In fact, I feel I do my best writing when I’m not writing at all.

Advice: Hold off as long as you can. And once you lose your patience, only send the work to people and presses you already respect and trust. 

What’s next: Lately I’ve been putting a lot of my energy into a new magazine and press called Horsethief Books that Devon Walker-Figueroa and I have started together. As far as my own poems go, with the loss of so many friends and luminaries I’ve been writing elegies as of late.

Age: I’m 35 and will be turning 36 on February 13 (yes, I was born on a Friday).Justin Boening Cover

Hometown: I was born in Saratoga Hospital, on a holiday down to see the ponies. I call Glens Falls, New York, my hometown though, since I ate my first corn on the cob there, stole my first bike there, etc. I moved to New York City when I was six—pretty young—so that’s a home for me as well, though not my origins. Recently, I was eating a 1:00 AM chicken fried steak in Missoula, Montana, at a dive called the Ox. Two guys, who had just finished playing poker at the front card table, stood up suddenly from their counter stools. One guy walloped the other guy in the eye, snatched up his rucksack, and hustled out the front door. No one called the cops. Few were alarmed. That’s the place I’ve lived the longest, actually—Missoula is another home.

Residence: Iowa City.

Job: A living? Maybe you could call it that. I teach and edit, mostly.

Time spent writing the book: Well, there are some whispers from poems I wrote while I was a graduate student, but they’re really only whispers. The oldest poem in the book is one I wrote the moment after I handed in my graduate thesis—that was in 2011. The newest poem is one I wrote in 2015. So I guess that means four years?

Time spent finding a home for it: I sent out bashfully in 2013, and then in earnest until the book was taken in 2015.

 

Safiya SinclairSafiya Sinclair
Cannibal
University of Nebraska Press (Prairie Schooner Book Prize)

“Tell the hounds who undress
me with their eyes—I have nothing
to hide. I will spread myself

wide.”

—from “Center of the World”

 

How it began: I began writing poetry as an act of survival. Faced with the silencing exile of womanhood in an oppressive household and a patriarchal society that discouraged me from speaking and thinking, the only way to make sense of my burgeoning selfhood was here on the page, by writing it down. Then, plagued still with the strange linguistic exile of writing in English, the language of the colonist, while dancing wildly in the brazen self of Jamaican patois, the only way to unfracture this amputated history was by making a home for myself on the page, and building new modes of language by writing poetry.

When I was younger I was very dismayed by how little of myself and my family I could trace into the past, and was very inspired by the oral folklore and storytelling tradition passed down by my mother and my aunts. It became very clear to me that this oral folklore and storytelling was a matriarchal tradition—a way of preserving our history, both family history and Jamaican history. This not only incited and inspired me to write Cannibal, but it was also a way of saving my own life, of making a record of our songs and mother tongue, and paying tribute to the women who have woven our words and days into existence.     

Finally, it was imperative for me to confront the macabre history of the Caribbean itself—to expose the postcolonial roots of violence here; to explore how being “Caribbean” was so closely linked to being “savage,” being cannibal. By confronting the ugly language and prejudices that continue to plague all people of the African diaspora, I hoped to renarrativize the toxic gaze of white supremacy at home and abroad, to shatter its fictions through the shared ritual of poetry.

Inspiration: Always in my ear is the ghost meter of the Caribbean Sea, its old rhythm and singing. The possessed tempo of Pocomania, and the fire-root of duende. I am continually inspired by the fertile landscape of Jamaica, which fevers my dreams—our lush hills and blooms, our heavy fruit trees. The way nothing here grows politely. The wild animal of my childhood and its green river of memory.

I’m fascinated by Goethe’s lifelong search for the “Primal Plant,” from which grew my own notion of the black woman’s body as that elusive Primal Plant, the first site of exile. Early on in college I was very startled by Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, which showed me the wild possibilities of breaking form, how I could build my own labyrinth of mythification as a way to honor and transfigure family, a way to alchemize our folklore. I’ve also been writing from a desire to dismantle Western texts like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, to repossess Caliban as a throat through which the poems could sing, our one-drop rhythm transgressing violence and its lingering exile, a linguistic rebellion forged here through the music of linguistic mastery. 

Influences: The poets, artists, and writers who feed the fire and bloodroot of my family tree are Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Frida Kahlo, James Baldwin, Federico García Lorca, Caliban, Aimé Césaire, Caravaggio, Franz Kafka, Gabriel García Márquez, Paul Celan, Rita Dove, Wangechi Mutu, Derek Walcott, and Kamau Brathwaite.

Writer’s Block Remedy: I can’t say I’ve ever truly reached an impasse in my work. There’s still so much unwritten of Jamaican history, folklore, and culture, still so much of our rich lives that I need to give voice to, in my own small way. Because I read so feverishly, and am always engaging with topics outside of my field—mostly science, history, and philosophy—I’m always finding new ways to enter into a poem, then discovering how many ideas are already in dialogue with each other in that lyric space. I am often so possessed with language, with the roots and wide-ranging shadows of words, that I’m always chasing one word or another down a new corridor of inquiry. If I hit a wall, I’ll listen to music that opens a window unto memory and centers me in a specific time and place, or I’ll reread authors who’ve dazzled and nurtured me, who take the top of my head off. Both English and Jamaican patois are two deep oceans ready-made for diving. And I dive, unabashedly. There, I find the far-reaching tentacles of naming and wording in our society so expansive that I would have enough material to interpret for a lifetime.

Advice: Take your time. Read widely, expand your references and vocabulary; make the poems sing. Nowadays I think there is such a rush to publish a first book, and many poets might feel pressured to send something out that isn’t quite ready. My strongest advice is to be unafraid of waiting, to sit with your words and work until you’ve cultivated them into something flourishing. Live inside the book until you’re certain you’ve grown something lasting, a bloom of your absolute best self. You only have one first; make it count.

What’s next: I’m currently working on a memoir about growing up in a strict Rastafarian household in Jamaica, and feeling estranged in my own country (Jamaica is a heavily Christian country, and Rastafarians are an oft-ostracized minority.) At that same time, I began feeling exiled by my blooming womanhood, and eventually had no choice but to rebel against a religion and a home that made no room for me.

Age: 32. Safiya Sinclair Cover

Hometown: Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Residence: Los Angeles.

Job: I’m a third-year doctoral student at the University of Southern California, where I’m getting my PhD in literature and creative writing.

Time spent writing the book: The bulk of the poems were written in the three years I was in the MFA program at the University of Virginia. The book was my final thesis, and I spent a few months after that rearranging, focusing, and editing the manuscript. One poem snuck into Cannibal that was written in college six or seven years ago. After the book was accepted, I was still tinkering a bit with structuring, and I knew it needed three more poems (circling around a specific theme) to make it cohesive and complete in my mind, so I slipped three new poems into the manuscript, right down to the wire. Those last three poems were completed in September 2015.

Time spent finding a home for it: I waited to send out the manuscript (and most of its poems) until I felt certain that it was ready to breathe on its own full-bloodedly. The fall after I graduated from the University of Virginia I started submitting Cannibal to prizes, and was really fortunate to have the book accepted to a couple of places by the summer of 2015. Cannibal won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry that June. So it was a year or less of sending it out into the world until it was accepted—a fitting nine months.

Tommy PicoTommy Pico
IRL
Birds, LLC

“The stars are anxious.
What version of yrself
do you see when you
close yr eyes?

—from “IRL”

How it began: I was torn between a stable relationship and predictable future with a boring dude, and an exciting but uneven fling with a pretty young thing. It kind of broke open all the similar divisions inside me: how to transition into my thirties; hailing from the foothills of rural California but living in the busiest city in America; being a modern, queer, indigenous person with a lot of inherent self-love in a world that tries to deny me life, dignity, liberty, etc.

Inspiration: Survivors, femininity, experiences that happen within the span of ninety minutes (like movies [sometimes sex]).

Influences: A. R. Ammons, Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Amy Winehouse, Janet Jackson, Nicki Minaj, June Jordan, Muriel Rukeyser, Jeffrey Yang, Sherman Alexie, James Welch, Joy Harjo, Louise Erdrich, Chun Li, Storm, etc.

Writer’s Block Remedy: I watch a movie—or a film, if that’s your vibe. Seeing something begin, build, and end in a certain amount of time gives me faith in a creative faculty.

Advice:  Keep the faith, b, keep the faith.

What’s next: I’m working with Tin House to finish up the final edits on Nature Poem, the follow-up to IRL coming out May 2017. I’m about halfway through writing book number three, Junk, and have started Food—the final book in the four-part series I started with IRL. Also a roundtable-discussion-type podcast called “Food 4 Thot” about four multiracial, queer writers in New York City discussing literature, sexuality, and pop culture (hashtag elevator pitch) whom I met at the 2016 Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. Teaching long-poem workshops. Also being a good friend, a good lay, and a good human.

Age: 33.Tommy PIco Cover

Hometown: The Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay nation.

Residence: New York City.

Job: I have approximately sixty-nine side piece jobs, including teaching/touring/freelance stuff, and a main thing that involves writing—but I’m not at liberty to talk about it just yet. If I told you I’d prolly have to kill you.

Time spent writing the book: Officially, I wrote the book from May to August 2014 in an office in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, facing the entire trunk of Manhattan, but in a way I was writing the book for thirty years.

Time spent finding a home for it: I sent it to allllll the book contests and once or twice even got a personalized rejection, but mostly sturdy no’s from everybody. I don’t blame them, it’s a weird nonstandard poem and the initial manuscript was probs 70 percent realized. Sampson Starkweather at Birds, LLC saw me read one night in the city and asked me to send him something. Thankfully they had enough faith in my voice and work ethic to help me guide the book toward its final form.

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

The Whole Self: Our Thirteenth Annual Look at Debut Poets

by

Dana Isokawa

12.13.17

The ten poetry collections featured in our thirteenth annual roundup of debut poets offer a glimpse of the wide range of contemporary poetry. Each of the books, published in 2017, shows just how much poetry can do. Eve L. Ewing’s Electric Arches tells stories that reckon with history and imagine a better future, while Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS and sam sax’s Madness reclaim language that has been distorted by governments and institutions of power. Emily Skillings’s Fort Not reveals the tendencies of our culture and society through the trappings of modern life, as does Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities. Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf and Jenny Johnson’s In Full Velvet both give voice to the interior—Akbar to the ongoing work of faith, Johnson to the vagaries of the heart and desire. Joseph Rios’s Shadowboxing and Airea D. Matthews’s Simulacra create personas and alter egos that argue and spar with one another, while William Brewer’s I Know Your Kind clears a path for understanding others. And all ten collections do what poetry does best: inhabit the many possibilities of language and form as well as attend to, as Seamus Heaney put it, “the lift and frolic of the words in themselves.”

We asked the poets to share the stories and influences behind their books, and they responded with a list of inspirations as varied as their collections, from the food of April Bloomfield and music of Flying Lotus to the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and words of Adrienne Rich. When we asked the poets to offer advice to writers who are stuck or looking to publish their first book, however, their answers coalesced around some common 
suggestions: Take a break when you’re struggling with a piece. Permit yourself to write one or two or thirty or a hundred lousy poems. Most of all, reach out to the people who can keep you afloat. Listen to your family’s stories, as Chen and sax do, or talk with your kids, as Matthews advises. Or, as Johnson and Rios suggest, call up your friends, encourage one another, and then hold one another accountable for getting the work done.

Writing poetry can often feel lonely or frustrating or even futile—especially during a year of political turmoil and soul-searching—and these poets remind us to turn to whatever will protect our capacity for wonder and allow each of us to be our “whole self on the page,” as Rios says. They remind us to be attentive to the world, and they urge us to be ready for whatever scrap of language or feeling might help us pass from silence into speaking and jolt a poem into being.

 

Kaveh Akbar | Airea D. Matthews 
William Brewer | Chen Chen
Eve L. Ewing | Jenny Johnson 
sam sax | Emily Skillings
 Joseph Rios | Layli Long Soldier

 

Kaveh Akbar
Calling a Wolf a Wolf
Alice James Books
 

I try not to think of God as a debt to luck
but for years I consumed nothing
that did not harm me
and still I lived, witless

as a bird flying over state lines.

            —from “Personal Inventory: Fearless (Temporis Fila)”

How it began: When I got sober, poetry became my life raft. Every poem in Calling a Wolf a Wolf was written from a few months to a few years after I got sober. I had no idea what to do with myself, what to do with my physical body or my time. I had no relationship to any kind of living that wasn’t predicated on the pursuit of narcotic experience. In a very real way, sobriety sublimated one set of addictions (narcotic) into another (poetic). The obsessiveness, the compulsivity, is exactly the same. All I ever want to do today is write poems, read poems, talk about poems. But this new obsession is much more fun (and much easier on my physiological/psychological/spiritual self ).

Inspiration: The searching earnestness of the people I’ve met in recovery. They’ve taught me how to talk about myself without mythologizing, without casting myself as some misunderstood hero maligned by the world. I think (hope!) that resistance to flattening my narrative into some easy self-serving hero’s journey is one of the central features of Calling a Wolf a Wolf.

Influences: Franz Wright, Abbas Kiarostami, Mary Ruefle, Kazim Ali, Daniel Johnston, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Carl Phillips, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Nicholson Baker, Dan Barden, Kathy Acker, all writers for The Simpsons from 1990–1999, Fanny Howe, Eduardo C. Corral, Jean Valentine, francine j. harris, the verve of Marc Bolan, the voice of Kate Bush, the sneer of Justin Pearson/The Locust, the frequency of Eric Bemberger’s guitar, Sohrab Sepehri, Russell Edson, Lydia Lunch, Zbigniew Herbert, Joanna Newsom, Heather Christle, Patricia Smith, Anne Carson, Robert Olen Butler, Bruce Nauman’s neon art, Vic Ketchman, my mother.

Writer’s block remedy: I don’t really believe in writer’s block. If I sit down to write in earnest and give myself enough time, eventually I’ll walk away with something. Even if it turns out to be nothing (which is usually the case), I’m still training and preparing my instincts for the next poem. Even bad poems that go nowhere provide compost for the good ones to come. That said, I do believe in refractory periods, periods spent rebuilding one’s relationship with silence. Ellen Bryant Voigt talks about how in order to strike, a cobra also needs to recoil. I have recoil periods in which I throw myself into my reading, a kind of active listening. So much of Calling a Wolf a Wolf works by hypersaturation, by these breathless rushes of language. It’s been immensely useful for me to go back into silence, to reclaim a bit of psychic quiet to take back into the poems.

Advice: Be kind to yourself and to other poets. There are so many people in the world who would conspire against our joy, who would mistake our reverent wonder for idleness. Against everything, we have to protect our permeability to wonder. That’s the nucleus around which all interesting art orbits.

Finding time to write: I’m one of those people who wakes up obnoxiously early to get in my hours before the world really starts up. I like to get into my poem-writing while my brain is still gummy with dream logic, before the mundane argle-bargle of the everyday comes in.

What’s next: Rebuilding a relationship with silence. Being the best professor and mentor I can be. Orienting myself toward gratitude despite a political moment working very hard to prevent that. Being in love and planning a wedding. Being an uncle. Touring with the book. Staying alive one day at a time.

Age: 28.

Hometown: Not sure exactly—I was born in Tehran, Iran, then moved to Pennsylvania, to New Jersey, to Wisconsin, to Indiana, to Florida, and now back to Indiana.

Residence: Lafayette, Indiana.

Job: I teach in the MFA program at Purdue University.

Time spent writing the book: The honest answer is twenty-eight years, maybe even longer than that, but to answer the question I think you’re actually asking, the oldest recognizable poem in the book is about five years old. That’s fairly fast, actually. There are a number phrases and images I cannibalized from poems much, much older than that, though.

Time spent finding a home for it: Not very long. Carey Salerno, my editor at Alice James, saw a poem of mine published by the Poetry Society of America and wrote to me asking if I had a manuscript. I actually wasn’t really done with Calling a Wolf a Wolf yet, but I sent her what I had with the caveat that I still needed time to continue building and rearranging and reimagining. She liked what she saw and took the leap. I couldn’t imagine working with a smarter, more generous, more compassionate editor. So much of what is good about the book is the result of her patient guidance and mentorship.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast (Ecco) is a collection I think people will still be reading in fifty years. Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied (Copper Canyon Press). William Brewer’s I Know Your Kind (Milkweed Editions). Airea D. Matthews’s Simulacra (Yale University Press). Cortney Lamar Charleston’s Telepathologies (Saturnalia Books). Safia Elhillo’s The January Children (University of Nebraska Press). Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS (Graywolf Press). Eve L. Ewing’s Electric Arches (Haymarket Books).

 

***

Airea D. Matthews
Simulacra
Yale University Press (Yale Series of Younger Poets)

but I knew it was a winged thing,
a puncture, a black and wicked door.

—from “Rebel Prelude”

How it began: My life and the lives of the people who have affected me were the impetus for the book. I’d had undiagnosed mental illness for a very long time, and I wanted to get to the root of it. It started with a question, actually. I asked myself if I had inherited hunger and instability. As I wrote the book, the universe handed me small parts of a very complicated answer.

Inspiration: Books, people, and technology—Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s The Blue and Brown Books, Albert Camus’s The Stranger and The Rebel, Franz Kafka’s absurdity, Greek and Sumerian myths, the wit of Twitter and Facebook, the days of Motorola Q, Anne Sexton, Gertrude Stein, my family and friends. In short, everyday life—private and public.

Influences: Aside from the nods in Simulacra to my poetic lineage, Nora Chassler, Vievee Francis, Rachel McKibbens, and Ladan Osman are some of my greatest artistic inspirations. They’ve all taught me more about community, poetry, and history through their generosity and friendship than I could ever hope to learn in a book. As literary exemplars, I’d have to say Rita Dove, Simone De Beauvoir, Anne Carson, Alice Notley, Haruki Murakami, Samuel Beckett, Italo Calvino, Muriel Rukeyser, Marina Tsvetaeva, Carl Phillips, Louise Glück, Antonio Porchia, Cecília Meireles, Wisława Szymborska, Heraclitus, Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Hayden, and Zora Neale Hurston.

Writer’s block remedy: When I lose language it’s almost entirely because I am too focused on myself at that moment. And so, I step back. I consciously get outside of myself by unplugging and planting myself in public spaces at odd hours of the day. My perspective shifts because, in public, my gaze moves toward other forms of subjectivity—nature, outside conversations, cityscapes, etc. I am also a big fan of stepping away from work to listen to my kids’ observations about life and/or ask them how they’d work through a problem. Young souls are closer to Edenic wisdom. They understand human nature and the journey in a way that seems to elude the more grizzled traveler.

Advice: Listen to yourself, your hand, your gut, your pen, your mind. Be authentically who you are as a writer. Your work has its own logic and its own tools; honor them. And, finally, wear comfortable shoes because the journey toward making the impossible possible is rugged, long, and lovely.

Finding time to write: I suppose I don’t find time as much as I make time. I have long practiced jotting down at least one observation every day—anything from watching a child play to documenting arguments. I find that those observations help me sustain focus when I sit to write in longer form. 

What’s next: I am trying to gain fluency in my body’s primitive language, my instincts. The next collection, “under/class,” will be driven entirely by those instincts and will almost definitely be outside of definition and genre—social criticism, poetry, and short stories.

Age: 45.

Hometown: I grew up in Trenton, but I spent twenty years in Detroit. Detroit is the place where I matured into a writer.

Residence: The City of Brotherly Love (and car horns), Philadelphia.

Job: Assistant professor of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College. The college was voted one of the most beautiful campuses in the country (and not just the grounds); the people are exceptional humans.

Time spent writing the book: The poems were in my body my whole life, perceiving and altering the way I interacted with the world. Somatically, I would say it took me forty-plus years. But, in a more linear view, it took a solid five years to commit them to paper and have them coalesce into a collection.

Time spent finding a home for it: I heard “no” and “not quite right” so often, I started to answer to them. Interestingly, I had a hard time getting individual poems published, which explains why my publishing acknowledgements are fairly lean in the book. I sent the manuscript out thirty times in some form or fashion, under two different titles. It was rejected twenty-eight times. It was accepted twice, and I went with Yale.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: ALL OF THEM! It’s hard to name only a few, but here’s my feeble attempt: Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Ife-Chudeni A. Oputa’s Rummage (Little A), Chelsea Dingman’s Thaw (University of Georgia Press), Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS, sam sax’s Madness, Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast, and Charif Shanahan’s Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing (Southern Illinois University Press).

William Brewer
I Know Your Kind
Milkweed Editions (National Poetry Series)

All the things
I meant to do are burnt spoons

hanging from the porch like chimes.

—from “Naloxone”
 

How it began: In the broadest sense, I saw the opiate epidemic start to swallow up my home state. Eventually it made its way into my life in specific ways, including a day when someone came to me and my partner and told us they had developed a heroin addiction. I was extremely angry with them and brushed them off, but quickly after that—by which I mean within a matter of minutes—I was overwhelmed with repulsion toward myself for how quickly I had slipped into such a damning, limited, and unsophisticated view of what this person had just confessed. Here they were at their most vulnerable, and I couldn’t be less humane. I was enacting the shame and stigmatization that is our culture’s default. I hated that and wanted to push against it.

Inspiration: There are maybe five hundred books and writers I’d like to name if I had the space and time, but I Know Your Kind is particularly indebted to Virginia Woolf, Carl Phillips, Denis Johnson, the Inferno, Paradise Lost, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Timothy Donnelly, John Berryman, and Walt Whitman.

Influences: I am constantly nourished, refreshed and challenged by Herman Melville, Don DeLillo, Caravaggio’s paintings, most of Stanley Kubrick, early Terrence Malick, LCD Soundsystem and Radiohead, the food of April Bloomfield, Gabrielle Hamilton, and the Joe Beef cookbook. More recently I have been nourished, refreshed, and challenged by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Louise Glück, Lydia Davis, Joy Williams, Karen Solie, Isaac Babel, Teju Cole, and Blade Runner (new and original).

Writer’s block remedy: If my writing is stuck, it’s because I haven’t read enough. Sometimes I pretend this isn’t the case, but I’m always wrong.

Advice: I’d suggest thinking about what your book is doing as a composition. How does it read? What are its sources of heat and thrust? Does it have an arc? An architecture? A book can be a kind of random collection of poems and still be organized in such a way that creates drama, tension, interaction, and a greater composition.

Finding time to write: The Stegner affords me a great deal of writing time, for which I’m extremely grateful.

What’s next: A new book of poems and a novel.

Age: 28.

Hometown: Morgantown, West Virginia.

Residence: Oakland.

Job: Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

Time spent writing the book: The oldest poems in the book are about four to five years old, though a large chunk was written in a fit of about eighteen months. It’s hard to say because some poems existed in a kind of shadow form for years before they were fully realized.

Time spent finding a home for it: Long answer, five years; short answer, approximately eighteen months.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast. Elizabeth Metzger’s The Spirit Papers (University of Massachusetts Press). And I’m excited to read Emily Skillings’s Fort Not (The Song Cave).

 

***

Chen Chen
When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities
BOA Editions (A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize)

My job is to trick

myself into believing
there are new ways
to find impossible honey.

            —from “Spell to Find Family”

How it began: The book happened poem by poem. I didn’t have a very specific project in mind. I wanted to write poems that excited me sonically and formally, that surprised me in their turns, that grappled with a wide array of subjects, such as: family, immigration, queerness, race, misrecognition, labor, pop culture, mortality, love, and “growing up” in a really broad sense. “Growing up” as something ongoing, unfinishable—not a linear process but a messy, multidirectional one. This theme of “growing up” became clearer the more poems I wrote and the more I saw them as being in conversation with one another.

The process of putting together my MFA thesis and working with my advisor, Bruce Smith, helped me take the step from a pile of poems to a poetry collection. After the book won the Poulin Prize, the judge, Jericho Brown, was so generous with his time and insights and helped me reshape and reenvision the manuscript. “Write the book you want to read,” Jericho said. It was the deepest encouragement as well as the most daunting challenge. And I felt that Jericho had inhabited the book in its ideal form, its most compelling state. He saw the potential, and he got me excited to revise.

I cut out about fifteen pages—poems involving this complicated relationship between a queer son and his unaccepting mother that were getting in the way of the book’s main movement. The book went from four sections to three, with that one poem (“Self-Portrait as So Much Potential”) set off on its own at the very beginning (a suggestion from my poet friend Jess Smith). And many poems underwent significant revision, mostly cuts and tightening up of language. I tend to be expansive and want to throw everything in, including the kitchen sink and everything from every kitchen on the planet going back to when kitchen sinks first became a thing; I’m fortunate to have such smart readers and editors who will tell me when my maximalist tendencies are working and I need to pull back. 

Inspiration: Robert Hayden. Jean Valentine. Walt Whitman. Joseph O. Legaspi. Nikky Finney. Paul Celan. Audre Lorde. Allen Ginsberg, especially Howl. Richard Siken’s Crush. Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. My former teachers Aracelis Girmay, Martín Espada, Deborah Gorlin, Bruce Smith, and Michael Burkard. Sarah Gambito, especially a poem called “Immigration,” which includes the line, “So what if I don’t love you.” Marilyn Chin’s Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Pablo Neruda, especially his odes, his poems about the Spanish Civil War, and his book The Book of Questions. I love the range of Neruda’s work. In the United States he’s known for his early love poems, but he wrote so many different kinds of poetry, including some of the most moving political poems. Other inspirations: Buffy the Vampire Slayer; my mother (who is a fabulous storyteller); Tegan and Sara; Paul Klee paintings and their delightful titles; cross-country running; the trees of New England; the Texas sun; the Japanese gay porn star Koh Masaki; guanacos (an animal related to the llama); reduced-sodium soy sauce; Frank Ocean; my high school French teachers; my partner, Jeff Gilbert; our dog, Mr. Rupert Giles (named after the British librarian character in Buffy).

Writer’s block remedy: I have to take breaks. Walk around. Talk to people I like. Watch some TV. Eat a snack. Do a different form of work. I really like doing my laundry; I don’t know why, but I find it meditative and satisfying. It’s weird how much I like doing laundry because I’m not super cleanly when it comes to other things, like my desk, where I do the actual writing. But, nine times out of ten, doing laundry and then putting away all my clothes in a very organized fashion helps me return to the writing with a fresh mind and a sense of calm. When that doesn’t work, I have to accept the draft isn’t going anywhere, at least not at the moment, and I have to will myself to stop staring at the computer screen. And then it’s wonderful to realize that I have a totally different draft or at least some bundle of notes I could attend to. The well doesn’t dry up. I just have to look somewhere else and stop fixating on what I thought was going to be the next poem.

Advice: Believe in your work. Don’t write what you think will get you published. My book got picked up quickly, but it took a longer time for many of the individual poems to get published in journals. Rejection will continue to happen after your book comes out, so really know, for yourself, what you like about your writing. You don’t want to feel like you’re experiencing success from something that doesn’t fully belong to you. It’s so satisfying when someone does (finally!) appreciate the weird thing you’re doing, your weird thing. I’m going to sound Hallmark-y, but I’m serious: Don’t compromise on your heart.

Finding time to write: I’ve found that I’m a much happier person when I make time to write, so I try to do that first. Before answering e-mails, before checking the news and social media, before getting up to take a shower sometimes. First thing. Then I feel like I’ve had at least this small moment to tend to my spirit, to honor what’s most alive or mysterious in how I’m seeing or engaging with the world. I like to try getting a whole draft out, but even a couple lines or one image can make the moment glow, and I can carry that with me into the rest of the day. But, to be honest, much of the time I just try to squeeze in some writing here and there.

What’s next: A second collection of poems, tentatively titled “Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency.” A lyric craft essay on Asian American poets and the politics of humor. Some personal essays, but who knows if they’re actually poems, not essays.

Age: 28.

Hometown: Amherst, Massachusetts, by way of Fort Worth, Texas, and Xiamen, China.

Residence: Lubbock, Texas.

Job: Doctoral student at Texas Tech University.

Time spent writing the book: The oldest poem is about six years old, but that includes a year of not even looking at it. I started it in college, then sort of abandoned it. This is a poem called “Race to the Tree,” which is probably the most narrative piece in my book. It took a long time to figure out the structure, though it ended up being pretty simple. Simplicity can take years, I guess. I was making edits on this poem up to the last minute before I had to turn in the final manuscript to my publisher. The other poems didn’t take quite that long. Most of my book was written during my MFA, and then I didn’t look at it for a little while after submitting it to contests and reading periods. I revised and revised after the book was picked up in Spring 2016. I work well with deadlines, so I’m glad that I had about five months (and not more than that) until the final manuscript was due last fall. It was a good amount of time for revisions—not too short that I felt rushed and not too long that I felt like I was overthinking everything. Well, I still overthought and over-obsessed, but not for terribly long!

Time spent finding a home for it: I was extremely lucky. I sent my book out to only seven places. One round of submissions in Fall/Winter 2015. I was mentally preparing myself to keep sending it out for many rounds. When I’ve submitted chapbook manuscripts, it’s taken more time and perseverance. When I apply for fellowships and residencies, it often takes a couple attempts at least. So I was stunned to learn that my book was a finalist for Waywiser Press’s Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize and then the winner of the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize at BOA Editions. I was stunned and continue to feel deeply grateful to the readers and editors who’ve responded with such enthusiasm for my work. And it’s been a dream working with BOA.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS. Keegan Lester’s this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all i had so i drew it (Slope Editions). Nico Amador’s Flower Wars (Newfound), which is one of the best chapbooks I’ve ever read; I’m excited to see what’s next for this poet. I’m painfully behind on new poetry collections, but I’m especially looking forward to reading Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied and E. J. Koh’s A Lesser Love (Pleiades Press). 

Eve L. Ewing
Electric Arches
Haymarket Books

they mailed me from Mississippi
in a metal ice chest

—from “how i arrived”

How it began: It started as a collection of mostly autobiographical poems that were varyingly interesting but not really cohesive. I talked with the publisher of Haymarket Books about the possibility of doing something with them, and it became one of those great iterative conversations where, through the process of talking something through with an active and curious listener, you have a chance to articulate for yourself what you’re really interested in doing. I realized that I wanted to write a book that would enter my own autobiographical coming-of-age story through a rewriting of my city’s past and future, through joy and magic, and that I wanted the book to speak to adolescent black girls and young adult black women. After that I was able to revise the manuscript into something with a lot more focus.

Inspiration: Reading Citizen by Claudia Rankine and seeing its use of visual art and prose. Walking around Chicago, driving around Chicago, biking around Chicago. Seeing visual art—for instance, the poem “The Device” was inspired by a series of masks I saw in the African art gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago. Going to the National Museum of African American History and Culture and seeing “the Mothership” that used to land onstage when Parliament-Funkadelic and George Clinton performed. Watching the film that Beyoncé made to accompany Lemonade and listening to A Seat at the Table by Solange; both pieces engage in elements of magic and world-building and, in the case of Solange’s album, a cohesion and clarity of aesthetic that I find inspiring. Listening to the album Heavn by Jamila Woods. Listening to Flying Lotus. A million other things.

Influences: Gwendolyn Brooks—I was writing the show No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks when I was editing Electric Arches. Ross Gay. Fatimah Asghar. Jamila Woods. Kevin Coval. Nate Marshall. Hanif Abdurraqib. Patricia Smith. Studs Terkel. Danez Smith.

Writer’s block remedy: I write in multiple genres, so often I just try to turn my attention to something else or step away from a project if it needs a little more time to incubate—although I often find it helpful to interrogate myself somewhat about the nature of the impasse. Am I tired? Hungry? Distracted? Is this idea bad? Is it something I’ve lost interest in? Am I trying to make an argument that I don’t actually have the evidence to make yet? Do I need another pair of eyes? Reflecting and being honest with myself about what’s going on usually helps me move forward. I’m also patient with myself. Everything doesn’t have to be written just this minute. Sometimes it’s okay to go read a book or ride a bike.

Advice: I think I was so eager to publish my book—and also perhaps somewhat lacking in confidence in myself—that I was at risk of going with any press that came along. I’m so grateful that I ended up with Haymarket, which I think was just perfect for me for so many reasons. If that hadn’t happened, I think there’s an alternate universe where the book is out on some other press in a much diminished form. I think it’s worth it to be patient and find the right press that believes not just in your book in the abstract, but in your entire vision for how you’d like it to live and operate in the world. I also think it’s worthwhile to ask yourself, “Which of these poems really are exciting to me?” and try to figure out which poems serve as the core thematic foundations of the book, and then edit and cut mercilessly around those foundations.

Finding time to write: It’s my job, which means it’s nonnegotiable, and we have to find the time for things that are nonnegotiable. I clear a path for it in whatever ways I can. Sometimes that means having a very disciplined morning writing session or a daylong retreat, and sometimes that means doing things the old-fashioned way—scribbling notes on a train or a bus.

What’s next: I recently finished my second book, When the Bell Stops Ringing, a work of nonfiction about the mass closure of public schools in Chicago and the history of racism in the city. I’m working on kicking off some new research projects that I hope will result in my second academic book, though that’s a very long process. And on Sunday mornings, little by little, I’ve been working on some fiction. 

Age: 31.

Hometown and Residence: Chicago.

Job: Professor at the University of Chicago and writer.

Time spent writing the book: Three years.

Time spent finding a home for it: About a year.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Three collections I both enjoyed and learned from were Safia Elhillo’s The January Children, Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast, and sam sax’s Madness.

 

***

 

Jenny Johnson
In Full Velvet
Sarabande Books

Let us speak without occasion
of relations of our choosing!

—from “Gay Marriage Poem”

How it began: There’s a scene in a somewhat dated film from 1983, Lianna, directed by John Sayles, in which the protagonist goes to a lesbian bar for the first time with her lover. The next morning, as she’s walking down the street, she is newly able to integrate a private way of being, seeing, and desiring into her public sphere. Through an exchange of looks, you see her recognizing that all along there existed a community of other queer folks. Suddenly she’s moving through a space where future friends or lovers are newly possibly everywhere—choosing a plum at the fruit stand or on the far side of a street smiling at you as you smile back. Kind of like an audience for a poem that you weren’t sure existed but who you kept writing and revising for just in case.

Inspiration: Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity by Bruce Bagemihl, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity by José Esteban Muñoz, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality by Gayle Salamon.

Influences: Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde are poets I read when I know I could be living and writing more courageously. A few other writers whose poems have been especially strong mentors are Rita Dove, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Marilyn Hacker, and Larry Levis.

Writer’s block remedy: I often turn to my dear friend and fellow poet Soham Patel, who always reminds me that it’s okay to play. And then we do—though we live in different cities, we get on the phone, laugh a lot, give each other exercises, and hold each other accountable.

Advice: Don’t listen to the voices of those who fear the power in what you have made and will make. Trust your closest readers and the reciprocal spaces that nourish you and give you strength.

Finding time to write: Like many poets I know, I am resourceful. I memorize poems that I love by others, which helps me think through my own while walking home along a busy road muffled by traffic. I carry a pocket-sized notebook when I go for a run. I have a little desk in an attic by a third-floor window where I slow down to revise. But many poems begin in the interstices of the day, when my mind is in motion.

What’s next: I recently cowrote a one-act play with playwright and friend Paul Kruse. It’s called Boundary Layer. The play takes place in a mysterious world covered in the most humble of life forms—moss. The last two people on a lonely planet, Sam and Dusty, are left to negotiate unexpected desires, relationships, and boundaries as they step outside of what is safe, familiar, and human.

Age: 38.

Hometown: Winchester, Virginia.

Residence: Pittsburgh.

Job: I teach at the University of Pittsburgh and at the Rainier Writing Workshop, Pacific Lutheran University’s low-residency MFA program. Before I taught college, I was a public school teacher.

Time spent writing the book: Eight years. In “Invisibility in Academe,” Adrienne Rich says that when someone “describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game with mirrors.” I share this because I spent eight years writing, but also eight years working through some sort of “psychic disequilibrium.” Often I was writing, but at the same time I was teaching, loving, showing up for others, organizing, dancing: choosing to be in spaces where I could better see myself. To write my book, I had to widen my sense of my work in relation to others.

Time spent finding a home for it: I was quite lucky—I sent my book out for about a year. Then I won a Whiting Award. The weekend of the awards ceremony in New York City, I gave a reading from my unpublished manuscript. After the reading, I was approached by an editor at Sarabande.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: What’s Hanging on the Hush (Ahsahta Press) by Lauren Russell, Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora, and The Virginia State Colony For Epileptics and Feebleminded (Persea Books) by Molly McCully Brown.

sam sax
Madness
Penguin Books (National Poetry Series)

you either love the world
or you live in it

            —from “Warning: Red Liquid”

How it began: The seed for this book was actually just an exercise I gave myself. I’d come across a list of reasons for admission to a mental asylum in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, in the 1800s that included examples such as “kicked in the head by a horse,” “tobacco and masturbation,” and “novel reading,” which I thought would all make lovely titles for poems. So I went to the woods (a residency at the Blue Mountain Center) but found I couldn’t write poems within that stricture. Instead I refocused my attention on the precise moment in history when homosexuality was taken out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and how that act of depathologizing has affected the way we think about and embody queerness and desire today. I began to work sequentially, incorporating my own relationship and my family’s relationship with mental health as both patients and practitioners. Through this process I discovered how clearly you can draw a line between so much of the inherited, lived, and systemic violence we experience and perpetuate today back to those early diagnoses. 

Inspiration: Some of my research materials were The Birth of the Clinic and Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault. The DSM-I from 1952. The collected paintings of Francisco Goya and Hieronymus Bosch. Freud’s idea of the pleasure principle. Talking with my grandpa. The Sawbones podcast.

Influences: My friends. The folks I started writing with and have grown alongside over many years have unequivocally had the most impactful and life-altering affect on my writing and personhood. Some of those folks are Franny Choi, Cameron Awkward-Rich, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Danez Smith, Fatimah Asghar, as well as countless other geniuses I’m lucky enough to be around. I’d also say there’s a litany of smart, politicized, literary, sad homosexuals from the present back to Hart Crane flinging himself off the deck of that ship who have made my work possible. 

Writer’s block remedy: Give up and start something new. There are many poems to be written. If something isn’t working, I feel totally fine putting it aside and writing toward what has the most urgency and energy around it. Another thing that frees me up from the internal and newly external pressures of writing poems is being a-okay making terrible ones. I try to think of each new piece of writing as an experiment until it transcends that and becomes a poem. There’s something about the lack of preciousness around this process that helps me think of them as disposable until they become indispensable. Also each experiment and almost poem that doesn’t meet the world helps me accrue knowledge that will inform the next thing I write.

Advice: Everyone’s journey is different, and I can’t think of any catchall prescriptive advice outside of: Don’t be a jerk. It can be a really crummy process. For the longest time not having a book made me quite sad, and I always found it mad frustrating when someone who was already established told me to take my time and that it would work out how it’s supposed to. Although that turned out true in my case, I don’t necessarily think this is good advice. If you’ve finished one project, move on to another. You can always return to edit what you’ve already written. The doldrums that sometimes arise from not having a book can be dangerous. Madness is the sixth or seventh full manuscript I put together over eight or so years of writing, and to be honest, had any of those initial books been published, it would have been bad news. The time it took to get these books into the world has been invaluable for their life as books and for mine as a writer. So if you can stomach the patience, go for it. If not, publish chaps! Self-publish zines (I made like twenty as a younger punk writer.) There are lots of ways to get your work out into the world that isn’t as precious, lauded, and seemingly impossible as the first book object. Fuck it up. Make your poems indispensable to the world and let publishers fight over the privilege of supporting your work.

Finding time to write: I find time to write in the mornings before other obligations, during a spare hour at the coffee shop, on trains, buses. I’ve been trying to broaden my notion of what writing is to include the passive moments—a shift in perspective where looking at the world is just as important as writing it down.

What’s next: I’ve got two books in the works. There’s a collection of poems that’s currently circling around a sequence of Anthropocene / Apocalypse poems that attempt to celebrate queer joy in community and loneliness as the world burns. I’m also working on a novel, which is a queer Jewish coming-of-age story told in nonlinear fragments from the perspective of someone who’s just lit their self on fire outside of Trump Tower.

Age: 31.

Hometown: Born in Manhattan, went to high school in Mamaroneck, New York.

Residence: Brooklyn, New York.

Job: I teach poetry and give readings.

Time spent writing the book: A little over a year. I wrote the drafts and skeletons for two-thirds of the book in the month I was up at a residency, and I spent the next year editing and refining. The rest of the book I wrote in and out of graduate school.

Time spent finding a home for it: Well, I’d just had my first book, which will be published second, picked up by Wesleyan University Press. The process of writing and sending it out took five to six years, although the book is wildly different from earlier versions I’d sent out. I had finished writing that first book and was tired of waiting for it to be accepted, so I decided to write a second book. I sent Madness out on a whim to the National Poetry Series and was expecting to have a multiyear journey of searching for a publisher, but amazingly Terrance Hayes selected the book. We had to push back my first book, Bury It, by a year so that the two books wouldn’t be in competition with each other.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Oy. This year has been ridiculously plump with incredible and dangerous first books. Here’s my list of poets whose first books this year took the top of my head off: Nicole Sealey, Kaveh Akbar, Erika L. Sánchez, Ife-Chudeni A. Oputa, Tyree Daye, Meg Freitag, Chen Chen, Eve L. Ewing, Layli Long Soldier, William Brewer, Chelsea Dingman, Javier Zamora, and I am SURE I’m leaving some wonderful books off this list.

 

***

Emily Skillings
Fort Not
The Song Cave

I was never here.
I’m not coming back.
I’m at sea.

            —from “Crystal Radio”

How it began: This book is a collection of mostly discrete poems that I wrote in graduate school (a handful were written in the time before and after). I never set off to write it; I looked back and gathered things I’d previously written and arranged them and drew out connections among them. It’s more of an act of returning. I think many first books begin this way, by remembering what’s been done already. Some of the shared attentions and themes of the book include depression, gender, color, painting and visual art, toxic white femininity, cloudiness, somatic experience, cantankerousness, jealousy, sex, light, America, collage, feelings without names, looming dread, boredom, water. I think in a larger sense I wanted to create a space where a state of not quite knowing felt expert, delightful, powerful.

Inspiration: I feel a little corny saying this, but my friends are my greatest inspiration. I am about to coteach a class on the poetics of refusal with a friend, the poet and artist Simone Kearney, at Parsons School of Design. Our conversations around this subject, around phenomenology and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill, and other texts that draw out these “slow states,” have really helped to create an environment for my work to emerge. The workshops and seminars I attended at Columbia were also instrumental. My students inspire me every week with their risk-taking and generosity. John Cleese’s character, Basil Fawlty, in the 1970s British sitcom Fawlty Towers shaped a lot of my early fascination with language, as did my father’s yellow legal pads, my mother’s excellent malapropisms and non sequiturs (“mind like a steel sieve”/ “letting the can of worms out of the bag”), and my brother’s baroque prose and steady diet of cyberpunk novels. I am a dedicated follower of a Twitter account of Yiddish proverbs.

Influences: John Ashbery, A. R. Ammons, Marcella Durand, Laura (Riding) Jackson, Eileen Myles, Francis Ponge, Sei Shōnagon, Mary Ruefle, Douglas Kearney, Susan Howe, Myung Mi Kim, Ariana Reines, Claudia Rankine, F. T. Prince, Emily Hunt, H. D., Harryette Mullen, Adam Fitzgerald, Alice Notley, Fernando Pessoa, my teachers Timothy Donnelly and Dorothea Lasky, Wayne Koestenbaum, Tracie Morris, Édouard Levé, Kim Hyesoon, Jorie Graham, Lucy Ives, Lyn Hejinian, Elizabeth Bishop, Jorge Luis Borges, James Schuyler, Lisa Robertson, Ali Power, Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, my dance teacher Alexandra Beller.

Writer’s block remedy: I usually reach an impasse because I need to take a minute to recharge, so I listen to that. I quiet down my writer mind and enter a reading-seeing phase that may last weeks or months. I use a lot of repetition and anaphora in my work (some of which gets cut later) because I find the experience of repeating oneself to be both necessary in our times and deeply clarifying and stimulating. To repeat a phrase is both to stabilize it in the memory of the writer and reader and to question its soundness, as in Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” The rose is both etched in our mind and transformed, transmogrified. When I still made dances, I was obsessed with repetition and resultant exhaustion, and I often repeat as a way of entering or reentering a poem. I think I learned how to do this by listening to Anne Waldman and Dorothea Lasky.

One question I am still grappling with is how to negotiate a balance between “innovation,” constraint, and intuition. The painter Jane Freilicher put it best, I think, when she said, “To strain after innovation, to worry about being on ‘the cutting edge’ (a phrase I hate), reflects a concern for a place in history or one’s career rather than the authenticity of one’s painting.” There’s also, I think, a quieter quote somewhere about her letting go of the pressure to be innovative, and that she felt she could really paint after that, but I can’t seem to find it anywhere.

This sounds a little strange, but I like to think of my life so far as a writer as a kind of oscillation between states of openness and movement and states of stillness and solitude. There are islands of production, productivity, and then pockets of…nothing. I think I am grateful to my depression in this way, in that it often forces me to be still. 

Advice: Support other writers by editing their books, teaching their work, inviting them to read, publishing them, letting them sleep on your couch, etc. Put your work in the hands of only people you know to be caring and dedicated. I am grateful that being a poet is perhaps more of a career path than it once was, and I know that being heard and read is vital to the form. That being said, I do find the professionalization of poetry (in which we all engage) to be in some ways hurtful to the writing itself. It’s okay to turn it off sometimes, this drive toward productivity. When you are writing, you are not involved in career making; you are being a poet. You are also a poet when you are teaching or walking around or doing your day job or looking at art. Don’t partition off your daily life from your writing life.

Eileen Myles once visited an undergraduate poetry workshop taught by Jennifer Firestone that I was taking, and she said something like: “There is something to being a poet that has nothing to do with writing poetry. It’s an identity.” This was such a relief for me when I heard it almost ten years ago, and yet I’m still not sure what it means. Perhaps what it means to me keeps changing. I like that.

Finding time to write: I am a very slow writer. I only sit down to write a poem a handful of times per month, but I find I am constantly jotting down fragments, recording phrases, and “puttering” (to borrow one of my mother’s favorite terms) over lines. I usually use my phone to record these, either as a note or in a voice memo. These scraps gleaned from daily life become the scaffolding of many of my poems. I’ve been commuting to teach this semester and have also found that being on a train (with no Wi-Fi!) and gently zooming through a landscape is very conducive to writing. I just have to stay ahead of the motion sickness.

What’s next: I’m working on a book-length poem sequence called “Mother of Pearl” about the environment and whether or not I want to eventually have children. It uses fragments of language from the anonymous Middle English poem “Pearl,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, lyrics from Roxy Music’s song “Mother of Pearl,” and probably a few more sources. It is a very different experience than writing Fort Not, both because it is more of a project book than a collection, and because it relies on and is building itself around found language. I also want to start writing a novel but don’t quite know how.

Age: 29.

Hometown: Brunswick, Maine.

Residence: Brooklyn, New York, and sometimes Hudson, New York.

Job: Assistant to poets and an adjunct professor.

Time spent writing the book: Five years. I wrote the poem “Canary” in thirty minutes before a poetry reading at the Center for Book Arts in 2013 and didn’t change a word. I began the poem “Parallelogram” in 2014 and didn’t finish it until 2016, revising it well into 2017.

Time spent finding a home for it: I think I had a pretty rare experience in that the Song Cave (run by the incredible Alan Felsenthal and Ben Estes) was the first and only press to which I sent the manuscript, so not long. The deadline for the Song Cave’s 2016 open reading period (and my partner Danniel Schoonebeek’s gentle nudging to put it in my calendar) was one of the primary motivators for getting the initial manuscript together.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: William Brewer’s incredible I Know Your Kind comes to mind, and Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast. Tongo Eisen-Martin’s second book, Heaven Is All Goodbyes (City Lights Books), is one of my favorite books of the year, along with Alan Felsenthal’s debut, Lowly (Ugly Duckling Presse). I am incredibly excited for Samantha Zighelboim’s The Fat Sonnets, which will be coming out in 2018 from Argos Books. 

page_5: 

Joseph Rios
Shadowboxing: Poems & Impersonations
Omnidawn Publishing

I am the American, güey

            —from “Southpaw Curse”

How it began: It was a long while before I started thinking about a book. Willie Perdomo helped me with that at a Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation workshop. That’s when I found my alter ego, Josefo. Willie got me to conceptualize a project that could be built around this character. That was in 2012. It took another three years to mold the work into something that felt whole. I read John Berryman’s Mr. Bones character [from The Dream Songs] and Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito and fell in love with the notion of characters living full lives inside poems. It’s a thin veil, of course, but it worked for me. I was able to hide behind this character that looked and sounded like me, had the same memories and experiences as me, but was allowed to live apart from me.

Inspiration: My grandmother’s stories, my grandfather’s stories, the dudes I dug trenches with, the packinghouse where I used to work, wrench turners at my uncle’s airplane shop, jornaleros I picked up at Home Depot in Cypress Park, in Oakland, Marina del Rey, Daly City. My cousin Gabe’s vinyl collection, Dro’s Navy stories, dysfunctional romantic relationships, regret, mistakes, degenerate behavior, survival, and healing. You know, all that stuff you talk about when you and your cousin Erica are drunk and crying at four in the morning. Also, watching people I love get sick and pass away. All that loss, too much loss. Mourning, of course.

Influences: Javier O. Huerta, Michele Serros, Richard Pryor, Douglas Kearney, Warren G, Andrés Montoya, Rafa Cardenas, John Berryman, Zbigniew Herbert, D’Angelo, Art Laboe, and the Rocky films.

Writer’s block remedy: My poetry community, without a doubt. As I write this, I’m sitting across from my poet-cousin Sara Borjas. We met up to get some work done. I really couldn’t do a damn thing without these people.

Advice: Keep writing. Keep grinding. Send to presses that are publishing work you give a shit about. Don’t water down your voice because you think that’s what it takes to get a book. My homie Chiwan Choi asks us, “Why sell out in a zero-dollar industry?” It might sound corny, but be your whole self on the page. There isn’t much out there more terrifying to the powers that be than a bunch of people being their whole damn selves on the page. They straight up ban those books in places like Arizona. We need more of those books.

Finding time to write: I have to make time or it doesn’t happen. I get lazy. I work nights and weekends. Weekdays are usually free for poet work. I have people around me who keep me accountable.

What’s next: Tough question. I feel so far away from anything that resembles a second collection. I’m trying very hard to resist the producer mentality and to just enjoy this book and reflect on the journey I took to get here.

Age: 30.

Hometown: Clovis, California.

Residence: Los Angeles.

Job: I work at a venue called Civic Center Studios in downtown Los Angeles.

Time spent writing the book: Seven years, give or take.

Time spent finding a home for it: I submitted a previous version of the book as early as 2011. It was premature, without a doubt, but sending to contests kept me engaged in the work. I’m deadline driven that way.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: For real, 2017 needs to calm down. Where do I begin? Mai Der Vang’s Afterland (Graywolf Press). Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied. Vickie Vértiz’s Palm Frond With Its Throat Cut (University of Arizona Press). Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast. Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s Scar On/Scar Off (Stalking Horse Press). Vanessa Angélica Villarreal’s Beast Meridian (Noemi Press).

 

***

Layli Long Soldier
WHEREAS
Graywolf Press

Now
make room in the mouth
for grassesgrassesgrasses

            —from “Part 1: These Being the Concerns”

How it began: The first half of WHEREAS is a collection of poems that date back over the last decade. There was no particular setting off or intent for those poems except the desire to write. The second half of the book is a response to the 2009 Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans. For those pieces, it was a kind of frustration and outrage—lifelong and on slow boil—that propelled me.

Inspiration: My daughter, motherhood, and watching the younger generation. The land—the artfulness of the land, its endurance and change, its nonverbal lessons. And people—unexpected encounters as well as long-term relationships. I am always profoundly struck by the surprising things people say and do. People are poems, in themselves.

Influences: My daughter’s dad, the poet Orlando White, was as an important influence on my development as a writer, as were the poets he introduced me to—bpNichol and Aram Saroyan—whose works I return to over and over. Frida Kahlo and Zitkala-Sa speak to me as women artists of mixed heritage who elevated indigenous art, philosophies, and histories within contemporary considerations of art. And definitely the Native poets of my generation, previous generations, and the upcoming; their works are my touchstones. I turn to their pages both for inspiration and as conversation; I look and listen to how they handle language, form, line, and the big, sliding boulders of content.

Writer’s block remedy: Conversation—e-mails and phone calls—with other poets. Talking things out really helps the energy start moving again. There’s also conversation with the page: I will open a book of poems and keep the pages turned upward, next to my laptop. Sometimes just a glance toward the page helps invigorate my belief that whatever I’m working on, it can be written. I have others to hold my hand, figuratively speaking. And, when a piece has stopped and won’t move no matter how much I try, I need to take a break and do nothing for a while. Relaxing my brain is very important! I need to watch Netflix or hang out with my daughter; I need to laugh and not think about poetry at all.

Advice: Write as honestly as you can. Write what’s most important to you.

Finding time to write: I work at night from around 10 PM to 4 or 5 AM. I sleep in, in the morning. But it’s worth it. The night is an uninterrupted block of time that I really need.

What’s next: A new manuscript titled “2.” In this, I am working with ideas of duality, multiplicity, mixed heritage, failure versus success (the illusion of both), love and its failure, love and its necessity. Mostly, I am working with “2,” even at the most basic biological level, as the beginnings of pain and, likewise, belonging.

Age: 45.

Hometown: I grew up in the Southwest; I don’t have a single hometown. But I have lived in Santa Fe the longest and feel most at home here.

Residence: Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Job: Write, make art, do readings.

Time spent writing the book: A few of the poems date back ten years or so, not long after my daughter was born in 2006. And I began my response to the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans—the poems in Part II—in 2010 or 2011. Altogether, the response pieces took me about six years.

Time spent finding a home for it: A number of years ago, Jeff Shotts from Graywolf Press read my poem “Ȟe Sápa” online at the Kenyon Review. He messaged me about the poem and asked if I had a manuscript to read. At the time, I didn’t, but I told him that I was working on one. It took several years after receiving his message for me to finish WHEREAS. But we kept in touch and, although I was prepared to send my manuscript to other presses if Graywolf did not accept it, Graywolf ended up being the only press I submitted to when the manuscript was ready.

Recommendations for debut poetry collections from this year: Mai Der Vang’s Afterland and Bojan Louis’s Currents (BkMk Press).

 

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Breaking Into the Silence: Our Tenth Annual Look at Debut Poets

by

Melissa Faliveno

12.16.14

Ten years ago, Poets & Writers Magazine launched its annual Debut Poets series—a feature that aimed, quite simply, to highlight some of the best first books of poetry published in the previous year. In the decade since then, the series has grown into something all its own, bringing to light some of the most inspired, and inspiring, emerging poets from across the country—along with the ambitious, vital, and lasting collections they create. A number of the poets we’ve featured have gone on to become familiar names in the national writing community—Dan Albergotti, Todd Boss, Jericho Brown, Victoria Chang, Michael Cirelli, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Aracelis Girmay, Dana Goodyear, Tyehimba Jess, Dorothea Lasky, Joseph O. Legaspi, Alex Lemon, Ada Limón, and Justin Marks, to name just a few from the early years. But what’s most remarkable, when looking back through this list of poets (which you can see in full starting on page 90), is that all of them, regardless of how prolific or well known, made a commitment to writing, dedicating themselves to bringing words to life despite the jobs, everyday obligations, and myriad challenges that inevitably arise as time ticks along.

In celebration of our tenth annual Debut Poets roundup, we reached out to those poets—all 111 of them (one, Landis Everson, sadly, passed away in 2007)—and asked them to recommend their favorite debut collections of 2014. A good number responded, building for us a longlist of some of the year’s most exciting books. From that we selected the ten poets featured in the following pages. The task was not easy: We looked at both the work within those collections and at the poets themselves, in an attempt to curate not only a broad range of voice, style, content, and form, but also a diverse list of poets representing a unique breadth of age, background, and experience. These ten poets find inspiration in everything from neuroscience, outer space, black holes, and race to Anglo-Saxon elegies, Vietnamese musicals, honey badgers, and Nina Simone. Despite their many differences, though, they all point to a sense of wonder, exploration, curiosity, and community as essential to their writing—and they are all creating urgent, powerful, and important work. And what connects them even more fundamentally is that regardless of where they come from, what they do for a living, or where they draw inspiration, they all do it for the same reasons: for love of the work, and, as Sally Wen Mao puts it, to break into the silence, disarm the solitude, and find a place where poetry lives.

Sally Wen Mao
MAD HONEY SYMPOSIUM
Alice James Books

Abandon hive. If the hornet breaks the heat net,

save yourself. Abandon yen. Abandon majesty.
Spit the light out because it sears you so.
from “Apiology, With Stigma”

HOW IT BEGAN: In early 2012, I decided that the poems I had collected needed to transform into a manuscript. What compelled me? Probably the naked trees on Linn Street, my tiny yellow living room full of books and ghosts, or the radio silence of the days. Those winter days were short and frigid: Every day I walked past a frozen waterfall and slipped on cracked ice. I knew I had to write to break into that silence, disarm that solitude.

INSPIRATION: The earliest incarnation of this manuscript was a thesis project I titled “A Field Guide to Trapped Animals.” In this manuscript, I sought trapped animals: the honey badger, Laika the space dog, endangered flightless birds such as the kakapo, taxidermists’ specimens, disgruntled pandas in captivity, a flock of doomed pigeons. I admired the honey badger for its inane yet marvelous tenacity to sate its appetites for dangerous animals. From that obsession I found bees, and the magical honeys that they can make, including mad honey (meli chloron), a noxious honey made from rhododendrons or azaleas or oleanders that causes drunkenness, hallucinations, and heart palpitations in humans. There I was able to find the manuscript’s spine—humans who poison themselves for the sake of their desires.

INFLUENCES: Ai, for her poems are fire escapes into the terrifying psyches of others. Lorca, for his theory of the duende, and his poems that wander through the darkest and loneliest spaces in New York City. Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, for Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, one of my earliest introductions to poetry. Most recently Cathy Park Hong and Bhanu Kapil, women writers whose hugely exciting works transgress boundaries and shift borders in terms of subject, syntax, and form.

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m working on a new manuscript, Oculus, that maps out the border between exposure and invisibility: ghosts, cinema, digital life, and Internet voyeurism. In this manuscript, Anna May Wong, the Chinese American film actress who peaked in the 1920s and 1930s, acquires a time machine and travels through time searching for her perfect role. Along the way, she meets some of her contemporaries (Josephine Baker and Zora Neale Hurston), and some of her successors (Bruce Lee), and she is dismayed to see some of the future films that continue to cast Asian Americans in a stereotypical light. Other poems in this manuscript are about magnetic levitation trains, Chinese bodies exposed in the Bodies Exhibition, a model who wears a homeless man’s pants, and girls competing for a national singing competition.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: Sometimes the writing stops, but there is never enough material for a poet’s arsenal. I look for high places and vantage points, new spaces to invade and interrogate. I look for old books in science libraries. I research poetic obsessions or I try to look for new ones. I visit contemporary-art museums, natural-history museums, planetariums, space museums, botanical gardens, science libraries, bookstores, parties, concerts, or arboretums. I love the feeling of movement, of being on a train heading to someplace unknown. My entire self is built around this wonder, this movement, this search for adventure. I seek adventures, and they float back as poems eventually.

ADVICE: Be impermeable. Research your presses: Read their books, see if you like their covers, get to know their submission and evaluation process. It’s like finding an apartment, really: Send your manuscript to those presses that you could envision as a home for your poems to live. The key is to find a place where your poems live.

AGE: 27.

RESIDENCE: Brooklyn, New York.

JOB: I’m an instructor in the Asian American Studies program at Hunter College in New York, where I teach Asian American Poetics, and a teaching artist at several sites around Brooklyn.

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? Yes, thankfully, but who knows for how long. In the mornings I write, or late into the night with a cup of milk tea.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: About five years.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: Ten months.

Sally Wen Mao reads five poems from Mad Honey Symposium, published by Alice James Books.

***

Charlotte Boulay
FOXES ON THE TRAMPOLINE
Ecco

As much as I wanted that boy saved,
I wanted him eaten.
—from “Watson and the Shark”

HOW IT BEGAN: I’ve written poetry since high school, and graduate school helped me think about ways a disparate collection of poems might become a more or less co­hesive whole. Foxes isn’t a book “project,” although it has some themes and inter­ests that run throughout. These include exploring ideas associated with journeys, both concrete and abstract, as well as ques­tions about desire and loss.

INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES: I’ve joked that in almost any of my poems you can find references to animals and weather, but I think these are less inspirations than touch points that help me structure my concerns. I spent time in my early twenties living in India, and that was certainly an education, as well as an inspiration. I’m also continually inspired by visual art—paintings and photography and sculpture can do things that words can’t, but poetry can create a dialogue with them. This book owes a debt to Cy Twombly, whose work continues to fascinate me. In working on Foxes, I particularly relied on and admired the work of poets Saskia Hamilton, Nancy Willard, Robert Hass, and Susan Hutton.

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m working on both poems and essays. I’d love to write a second book more quickly than this one, but we’ll see.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: I try to get outside and take a walk, if I’m smart, and if not I try to turn as far away from my own obsessions as possible, to get out of my own head. That may be how I discovered the YouTube home video of foxes jumping on a trampoline in someone’s backyard—aimless Web surfing. What keeps me going is reaching for the moment when a poem comes together, when it becomes itself and something separate from me.

ADVICE: Keep going. Cycles of feeling good about your work that alternate with doubt that any of it is worthwhile are completely nor­mal. Listen to the judgments and suggestions you get from readers you trust, test them out, and then throw them away if they don’t feel right. Submit to all the places where you’ve always dreamed of being published. Don’t hold anything back.

AGE: 36.

RESIDENCE: Philadelphia.

JOB: I’m a grant writer at the Franklin Institute science museum.

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? This is something I continue to struggle with. I thought that leaving teaching and entering a 9-5 job would leave me freer to write without the burdens of grading and office hours, but in fact I’m pretty invested in my day job, and it often occupies my thoughts both inside and outside the office. I do make more money than I did as an adjunct, though, so that’s something, but I have much less time off. I’m still figuring out how to make more room in my daily routine for poetry. I’m not very good at writing in small snatches of time, but I’m working on it, and hoping it will help me in ways I haven’t discovered yet.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: I worked slowly on the book for about seven years.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: I sent it out to contests two years in a row, but had to withdraw from a few the second year after Ecco took it. My editor contacted me to ask for the manuscript after seeing a poem of mine in print, so that can still happen.

Charlotte Boulay reads the poem “Fleet” from Foxes on the Trampoline, published by Ecco. For more of Boulay’s work, visit www.charlotteboulay.com.

***

Hieu Minh Nguyen
THIS WAY TO THE SUGAR
Write Bloody Publishing

Sometimes
you don’t die when you’re supposed to,
and sometimes you do.
from “Flight”

HOW IT BEGAN: For a long time, I didn’t know how to write about my traumas. I found myself writing the same poems over and over again, even if they didn’t make any sense to the world, even if I was the only person who would understand the significance of something as basic as a peach. I guess the hope was that if I could write the poems, if I could speak about my trauma in a way that didn’t seem careless, I could stop trying to explain myself. It is stupid to feel the need to explain yourself at all, but I spent a lot of time being ashamed of my experiences as a son, a body, a survivor, and I believe in the importance of confession as a tool to combat shame.

INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES: So many movies! Since a lot of my book talks about my childhood, I spent a lot of time archiving my past, which meant interviewing my mother, visiting old neighbor­hoods, and watching movies from when I was younger. I spent end­less nights watching and rewatching cai luong, which are essentially Vietnamese musicals. I was obsessed. Because my start in poetry began in spoken-word and slam poetry, many of my earlier influences came from performance poets, often poets who could transcend the arbi­trary boundaries between the performance world and the written one, such as Rachel McKibbens, Bao Phi, and Patricia Smith. Through my participation in the performance world, I was lucky enough to have been introduced to the work of poets outside of spoken word, including Li-Young Lee, Anne Sexton, and Philip Levine.

WHAT’S NEXT: Currently I am applying to college. I abstained from going to college directly after high school, but now it seems like the right time. So basically a lot of my time has been spent writing college admission essays and studying for the ACT. It’s pretty terrifying; I haven’t done math in six years. As for poetry, I am currently working on poems about time travel.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: I spend a lot of my time alone in my apartment writing, so when I come to a block, I feel like I’ve taken all I can from that space and need time to let it recharge. Usually, it requires engaging in something visual and half-social, like writing alone in a public location.

ADVICE: Give yourself permission to not explain everything.

AGE: 23.

RESIDENCE: Minneapolis.

JOB: Right now I am on a book tour, but when I’m back home I work at a haberdashery, selling fancy hats to fancy people.

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? My job has been incredibly supportive; I’m very lucky. I’ve been able to take large chunks of time off of work to focus on writing or traveling, and am always welcomed back.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: Most of the poems in the book were less than two years old, some even a few months old, by the time it was released.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: I started submitting the early version of the manuscript about two years before it got accepted.

Hieu Minh Nguyen reads a poem from This Way to the Sugar, published by Write Bloody Publishing. For more videos of Nguyen’s work visit www.hieuminhnguyen.com.

***

Saeed Jones
PRELUDE TO BRUISE
Coffee House Press

in this town everything born black
also burns.
—from “Anthracite”

HOW IT BEGAN: The poems exist in the space between the reality of my life as a gay black man from the American South and the mythology I often dreamed of in my isolation. With that said, I wrote about half of the poems in the book before Boy, the character we follow throughout the col­lection, appeared to me. I wrote a poem in which a boy wakes up from a beautiful dream to find his father standing silently in the doorway of his bed­room. The silence of that moment—the interior and exterior worlds colliding—stunned me. Prelude to Bruise exists in the form it does now because I wanted to know what happened next and why.

INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES: Homer’s The Odyssey, the last few collections Alexander McQueen designed before he took his own life, the way Toni Morrison involves landscapes and weather in the plot of her novels, and Nina Simone’s music. The poems of Lucie Brock-Broido, Patricia Smith, Rigoberto González, Anna Journey, Eduardo Corral, Jericho Brown, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Audre Lorde. The es­says of June Jordan, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Susan Sontag.

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m writing a memoir that charts a course from 1998, when I was 12, the year Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. were killed in hate crimes, to 2008, the year a straight man invited me into his bedroom, stripped down to his boxer shorts, and tried to kill me.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: When I’m struggling to write, I tend to begin reading in even more earnest than usual—earnest in the sense of pushing myself to read work beyond what I regard as my intellectual home and artistic neighborhood. I read to find work that will jolt me out of my usual habits and ways of approaching whatever I’m working on. Usually this works, but now and then it doesn’t. I’ve yet to be blocked in the sense of not being able to write for an extended period of time. Much more likely, I get frustrated because I hate what I’m writing and can’t tell if I should keep going or go in a different direction entirely. Reading then is like consulting a map for the best path forward.

ADVICE: Read five poems for every one poem that you write. You have to understand the broader landscape and community in which your work exists.

AGE: 29.

RESIDENCE: New York City.

JOB: I’m the editor of BuzzFeed LGBT.

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? I’ve essentially finished one book and started another in the two years I’ve been working at BuzzFeed. 

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: I worked on the book for five or six years.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: I submitted my manuscript to two contests; it was a finalist for the 2012 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. A few months later, Erika Stevens from Coffee House Press e-mailed me and said she wanted to talk. I was thrilled because Coffee House has published work by writers I love and respect, Patricia Smith among them. In retrospect, it all happened pretty quickly. I know I’m very lucky. Friends had told me to brace myself for a long haul so I tried to resist expectations. I’m glad my book wasn’t picked up as soon as I started submitting it; the act of being rejected and having to wait forced me to keep working at it. 

Saeed Jones reads five poems from Prelude to Bruise for BuzzFeed. For more of Jones’s work visit theferocity.tumblr.com.

***

Bianca Stone
SOMEONE ELSE’S WEDDING VOWS
Tin House/Octopus Books

What man does is build whole universes out of miniscule
disasters and educational degrees.
—from “The Future is Here”

HOW IT BEGAN: After I graduated from NYU’s graduate writing program in 2009 these poems just flooded in. I thought I’d be publishing my thesis, but that was just a stepping-stone to this book. When I look at Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, I realize that so many of these poems speak to past poems I’ve written. That’s important to me, to have my work never be static, moving forward but with those older poems still vital. For this book I wanted to write out the complexities of human love; how rich, but also how destructive it can be—and always somehow deeply inspiring. Being loved by someone is a great responsibility. And loving someone can be very hard, if part of their love is problematic.

INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES: I’ve always been drawn to science, especially neuroscience. I feel that poets look at the world so differently because of something to do with the way their brains are wired: It’s not the normal, happy, healthy brain. It’s something else entirely. I also find inspiration in art—from reading comic books to sitting for hours in the Byzantine section of the Metropolitan Museum—as well as space travel, religion, and mythology. In addition, Vermont, where I’m from, is very important to the landscape in my poems, and I’m endlessly inspired by my friends and colleagues, all the amazing poets I know: listening to them, reading their books, collaborating with them. That’s really what keeps me going sometimes. I grew up spending a huge amount of time with my grandmother, the late poet Ruth Stone, and her poetry is ingrained in me. As is the work of my mother, novelist Abigail Stone. But of course I paved my own way too. I fell in love with Sylvia Plath and William Butler Yeats early on. Contemporary poets like John Ashbery, Sharon Olds, Claudia Rankine, Anne Carson, and Mark Strand have been hugely influential.

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m writing a lot of poems, some of which feels like a kind of memoir-essay-elegy-poetry hybrid book. I’m exploring narrative storytelling within the surreal. I’m also working a lot on what I call my Poetry Comics: that’s visual art and the lyrical working together, without one explaining the other. I use pen and ink with watercolor to do this. I find combining the text and image one of the most challenging things, but one that can be very exciting. We’ve been seeing a lot more of visual art in the writing world. I think it’s generative for students, too, to think about other means to express themselves and break out of the institutional bubble. Lastly, I’m in the (massive) process of rescuing and fixing up Ruth Stone’s house in Goshen, Vermont, and turning it into a nonprofit writers retreat and artist space.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: Sometimes I’m not feeling anything and I take a break from myself, find a well-written, engaging book of poetry and immerse myself. Getting out of your own head is just the key. Drawing or painting, too, lets my mind rebuild.

ADVICE: Be patient. Rather than focus on book contests, focus on making a community of support. Do readings, start magazines, take classes; make connections with like-minded poets and use those connections. Once you have a good, solid, thriving community of contemporaries, everything follows.

AGE: 31.

RESIDENCE: New York City.

JOB: I think this is a great question for writers, because usually it’s not as simple as saying, “I’m a poet!” Although, I always say that first, bluntly, without apology or pretention. I love people’s reactions. Usually they say, “Not a lot of money in that, huh?” and I say, “We actually make it work!” Really, there’s always so much more to being a writer than people think. Being a writer means you usually do many things, all of which is informed by your creativity. My livelihood comes from being a personal assistant to a poet at NYU. I also teach online classes in poetry and the visual image, guest lecture and teach, and do poetry-related freelance illustration. I’m also the chair of the Ruth Stone Foundation and editor-cofounder of Monk Books.

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? I work from home mostly, and my work involves lots of multi-tasking. It’s a blessing and a curse because everything I do is self-motivation based. It’s hard sometimes to pick which task to focus all my energy on. But yes, compared to everyone else I know, I have lots of glorious writing time. I just have to make myself do work-work and poetry-work equally.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: About four or five years. It went through so many revisions, editing, cutting, and adding. I was editing poems right up until the last second. It’s a lot of deciding what’s working, and what you’re clinging to that perhaps should be let go.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: Four years. I submitted to a lot of contests, which is really a crapshoot. I started to realize I needed to find other ways to get it in someone’s hands. A lot of times that happens at poetry readings, when you get along with someone who is a publisher, and they like your poems, you’re like, “Well, guess that I have this book you can look at!”

Bianca Stone reads a poem from Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, along with original illustrations and animation by the poet, for Tin House. For more of Stone’s videos visit vimeo.com/tinhouse.

Sara Eliza Johnson
BONE MAP
Milkweed Editions (National Poetry Series)

all moments will shine
if you cut them open,
glisten like entrails in the sun.
—from “As the Sickle Moon Guts a Cloud”

HOW IT BEGAN: The book began as a sea­faring narrative—influenced in part by a stormy winter in Provincetown, Massachu­setts, on Cape Cod—and expanded outward into the world of Bone Map. As the poems expanded outward, as they further consid­ered the contemporary American moment, they also became more visceral and brutal, and eventually I realized I was writing an organic and ancient violence into the book, that the book was in some sense about violence as origin.

INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES: I immersed myself in the materi­als of strange, old worlds (ones often as alluring as they are terrifying): Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the 1967 Czech film Marketa Lazarová, the Anglo-Saxon elegies and riddles, the sixth-century voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator, Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise. The poets and artists who have particularly influenced me include Lorca, Plath, Celan, Ingmar Bergman, and the Polish artist Zdzisław Beksinski, who said, “I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams.”

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m still in the early stages of the next book, but it’s one preoccupied with the apocalyptic moment. I’m writing a lot about human annihilation and alien or inhuman spaces, such as primordial earth, future earth, outer space, and deep sea.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: I’m always looking for new sources of fascination to spark my imagination: a book on black holes or human evolution, a visually exciting film, a visit to a museum or the aquarium. If I’m experiencing writer’s block or feel stuck in a comfort zone, I’ll more aggressively seek those sources out. It’s in part this curiosity—and the potential to transform my curiosities into art—that keeps me writing and creating.

ADVICE: Don’t be afraid to cut the dead weight. Beware of nostalgi­cally clinging to poems that marked artistic milestones for you. And just because a piece is good—or has been published in a grand venue—doesn’t mean it belongs in the project you’ve undertaken. If you think of the book as a dynamic, breathing thing, or as a unique textual place, every page should seem indispensable when you read through it.

AGE: 30.

RESIDENCE: Salt Lake City.

JOB: I’m a PhD student in the creative writing program at the University of Utah, where I also teach.

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? Though often my academic and creative work intersect, it is not always easy to balance work obligations and writing, especially because it can be a challenge to switch on the creative regions of the brain at will. It is not only necessary to carve out the time to write, but the mental space as well. To get myself in the right headspace, I usually clear my desk of papers and books, put on some music (headphones are essential), and pour some coffee if it’s daytime or (just a little) bourbon if it’s night.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: About five years.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: Bone Map was selected for the National Poetry Series in its first round of submissions. The NPS was the fourth book contest to which I submitted the manuscript.

Sara Eliza Johnson reads the poem “Dear Rub” from Bone Map. For more of Johnson’s work visit saraelizajohnson.com.

***

F. Douglas Brown
ZERO TO THREE
University of Georgia Press (Cave Canem Poetry Prize)

my body, rain drenched on the inside
and you arriving faster
than the next song
—from “The Talk”

HOW IT BEGAN: What initiated this book was the birth of my son, then that of my daughter, five years later. It really came to­gether thanks to the Cave Canem retreat and the influence the writers gave then and continue to give. I am both a Cave Canem and Kundiman fellow, and the folks who are connected to these two phenomenal organizations are generous, intelligent, and the best advocates for poetry that I know. They all helped me push and delve deep into the work. When my father died five years ago, so many poems erupted. When I stepped back and looked at the body of work, a book made sense.

INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES: My kids and father were the im­mediate sources for this. As I mentioned, the poets of Cave Canem and Kundiman really push all of us involved to believe in the work we’re doing. However, back in ‘99 or so, I was in the MA Creative Writing Program at San Francisco State University, where I took a class called “What the Body Knows.” Toni Mirosevich and the rest of the class helped push me to see my father body as a vehicle for exploring my growing baby who was walking, talking, and figuring out the world. Music also factors into my work. I recently wrote a poem trying to imitate the cadence of Beyoncé’s song “Flaw­less.” Cornelius Eady’s You Don’t Miss Your Water and Yusef Komun­yakaa’s serial poem “Songs for My Father” were also big inspirations. Both helped me take mere observation and make it stand up to the duty of fatherhood. Later, Natasha Trethewey’s books helped me reexamine pain, and [learn] how to open the voices of fatherhood that had been surrounding me as a parent.

WHAT’S NEXT: I am working on two projects: first, more fatherhood poems, and second, my namesake. The fatherhood poems are a collaborative work with poet Geffrey Davis, who I met at the Cave Canem retreat in 2012. At that time he was a new father, and what we shared regarding fatherhood—mostly our attempts to be better fathers—inspired us to continue via poetry. We are conducting workshops together, discussing poems on fatherhood from seminal poets, and doing our own work to complete what we hope to be a manuscript. Whatever it becomes, the work is good thus far, and liberating. 

My complete name is Frederick Douglas Brown. How could one named after such a remarkable figure avoid it? In my work I am specifically responding to the paintings of Frederick Douglass’s life by the Harlem Renaissance painter Jacob Lawrence. My ekphrasis poems have been a pleasant journey for me. I have been able to do plenty of research, but I hope to view the Lawrence work face-to-face before releasing a final manuscript. As it is, I have completed fifteen poems.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: Reading is the best cure for me when the words are not coming together on the page or are nowhere near the page. Reading gives me permission to try new approaches. If I’m stuck or in a rut, an imitation poem helps. To see my friends publish work helps too. There is a bit of competition in every poet, and I don’t want to fall behind. I let that happen before, but Cave Canem teaches us how valuable our voice is.   

ADVICE: Two things were told to me that really helped me finalize the work: 1) This is not your thesis. Approach it as a means to speak to a larger audience. 2) Friend and poet Jenny Factor told me, “Doug, this is not the only book of poems you’ll write about your kids or your dad.”

AGE: 42.

RESIDENCE: Los Angeles.

JOB: I’m an English teacher at Loyola High School of Los Angeles. I’m also a deejay on the side.

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? Most of the time is does not! I have been a teacher for twenty years. From my experience, teaching and writing dip from the same well. When I am “on” in the classroom, rarely does that translate to being “on” in my writing. I am accustomed to having my hands in as many projects as possible: parenting, writing, teaching, deejaying, etc. When I am at my best as a writer or teacher, my job is singularly that. This, of course, excludes fatherhood, which asks/needs me to be whatever my kids need.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: This work took sixteen years to complete. The poems about my kids took a while, mostly because I did not want the book or any individual poems to be a slideshow of my family. Also, many of the poems explore the mystery of fatherhood, so the logic of the poems, like parenting, had to be thoroughly sifted. I was learning how to be a father as I was writing the poems (and still am). The poems about my father came rather quickly: I waited a year after his death, and then started writing them. The drafts were strong and needed minor tweaking, but tweaking nonetheless.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: I submitted the manuscript on three separate occasions. The first two submissions were a year before I won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize in 2013.

F. Douglas Brown reads two poems from Zero to Three, published by University of Georgia Press. For more of Brown’s work visit fdouglasbrown.com.

***

Cindy Williams Gutiérrez
THE SMALL CLAIM OF BONES
Bilingual Press

Garland my bones with those who have gone before, colli,
And the ones who have gone before them, colli. Return,
Return.”
from “If I Were a Nahua Poet”

HOW IT BEGAN: When I entered the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Program (graduation was a gift to myself for my fiftieth birthday), I knew I wanted to explore two things: Mesoamerican poetics, specifically Aztec “flower and song,” and the poetry of feminist Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who secured a cell of her own 250 years before Virginia Woolf insisted on her own room. I realized later that this was my way of bridging borders as well as history. I was born and raised in a Texas town on the border of Mexico, and my father worked for the U.S. Immigra­tion Service on the bridges in Brownsville for more than thirty years. Though he is the “Williams” in Williams Gutiérrez, he was raised in a Mexican mining camp in Santa Bárbara, Chihuahua. Primarily of Welsh and German ethnicity, he was also one-quarter Cherokee and had an abiding respect for native peoples and their way of life. My mother’s heritage (the “Gutiérrez” in Williams Gutiérrez) can be traced to a sixteenth-century land grant from the King of Spain. In exploring Mexico’s history as a backdrop for my own mixed heritage, I realized that I was not bicultural (Anglo and Hispanic), as I had thought growing up, but rather multicultural—braiding together my father’s indigenous and Anglo roots with my mother’s Hispanic heritage.

INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES: My father has been my muse. He was a history buff and loved telling stories about Mexico. He was also always fascinated by women’s lot throughout history: He read voraciously and spoke often about the misogynistic treatment of Mary Magdalene, Joan of Arc, Sor Juana, even Marilyn Monroe. Early on, he made me believe I could do anything, that the world was mine.  In high school, he’d return from his shift on the bridge after midnight and read my English papers. I would awaken to a full, handwritten page of thoughtful remarks. I reference this in the poem “The Gift,” which is the seminal poem in the first section of my book. I would also have to say that Charles Martin, my first mentor at Stonecoast, inspired (and terrified!) me when he suggested I create poems in the voices of Nahua poet-princes. This book would not have been born without his provocation. Aside from Sor Juana and Nezahualcoyotl and other Mesoamerican poets, my literary guiding lights are Yeats and Lorca—both tapped into ancestral memory and revived the local imagination. I draw inspiration from the silent and silenced voices of history.

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m searching for homes for my manuscripts that have remained tucked in my computer for the past two years. I also have an idea incubating for a play inspired by a Rumi poem. And today I awoke with an idea for a chapbook inspired by—no surprise—women’s lot. Though my father passed away a year and a half ago, he still speaks to me in my sleep.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: I haunt cafés. All I need is the aroma of coffee and a strong dose of people-watching (and the accompany­ing eavesdropping) and something (some image, line, dialogue, idea) will emerge.

ADVICE: I have found that the more I write about my writing, the better I can shape my collections. An abstract is a beautiful thing: It encapsulates your inten­tion for the book in less than a page. More than once, this has helped me perform the hardest task of all—prune poems from a budding manuscript.

AGE: 56.

RESIDENCE: Oregon City, Oregon.

JOB: I split my time between my careers as a business consultant and as a literary artist. My firm, Sage Marketing Associates, has provided strategic planning and marketing consulting services to West Coast–based global technology companies, regional healthcare organizations, and local nonprofits since 1997. I am also a poet-dramatist, producer, and educator. I have taught poetry (mostly in English, sometimes in Spanish) to every grade from kindergarten to twelfth through the Portland Art Museum, the Right Brain Initiative, Wordstock, and Writers in the Schools. I also teach poetry to adults at my home in the country and at Studio 410 in Portland, Oregon, where I offer an annual ekphrastic poetry class in response to Russell J. Young’s photographs. 

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? I have striven to piece together a writing life since 1997 when I left my job as a marketing executive in Silicon Valley (I have a Bachelor’s degree in Computing Science and a Wharton MBA). Consulting has afforded me the flexibility to become a serious writer as well as to return to graduate school to earn my MFA and, afterward, to teach. It continues to be a challenging balancing act, particularly because I am equally devoted to theatre, which is incredibly consuming, especially in the role of producer. My most recent production was Words That Burn—a dramatization of World War II experiences of William Stafford, Lawson Inada, and Guy Gabaldón (in their own words), which I created and coproduced in commemoration of the William Stafford Centennial. The show was featured in Milagro Theatre’s 2014 La Luna Nueva festival, which celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month in Portland, Oregon.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: Two years. I wrote the poems during my first two semesters at Stonecoast and then spent the last semester editing and shaping them into a collection. But the collection wasn’t in its finished form for another few months after graduation.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: During the 2009 AWP book fair, I shopped my manuscript around and received interest from Arizona State University’s Bilingual Press. I followed up three months later with a book proposal and my manuscript. About a year and a half after that, I received the press’s letter of acceptance. In the meantime, I received fifteen rejections.

Cindy Williams Gutiérrez reads the poem “Micacuicatl, Or Song For The Dead” from The Small Claim of Bones. Original pre-Hispanic music by Gerardo Calderón (www.grupo-condor.com). For more of Gutiérrez’s work visit grito-poetry.com.

***

Danniel Schoonebeek
AMERICAN BARRICADE
YesYes Books

The question of whether the idea of America is dead is not a
question.
from “Correction”

HOW IT BEGAN: There’s this feeling in the United States that the country is somehow finished. I wanted to peel off that scab, and peel off the scabs I found underneath, which for me were family power dynam­ics, the American workforce, taboos of love, the rifts surrounding gender and class, the problem of having a name and a history, the misnomer of the word America. I wanted to dig into that American disgust.

INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES: In place of inspiration, which I don’t think I feel, what I feel instead is ca­maraderie. And to that end the names can be endless. But Rukeyser and Woolf, global protest, James Agee, the Clash, running in winter, August Wilson, gunpowder tea, Eileen Myles, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, postcards, the Anti-Rent War, anxiety, Poet in New York, C. D. Wright, Pieter Brue­gel the Elder, the Occupy movement, Paul Thomas Anderson, living in a cabin, Claudia Rankine, rush hour, Allyson Paty, percussion, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Frank Bidart, night walks, Austria, Walker Evans, Sarah Kane, Camus, shaving, Simone Weil, Jules Renard, Marina Tsvetaeva.

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m finishing a book of prose, a travelogue called C’est la guerre. It details a two-month reading tour I did in support of American Barricade last year. C’est la guerre will be published by Poor Claudia in 2015. (I sometimes hear grovelers say that certain poems feel like prose broken into lines, and I think C’est la guerre is maybe poetry broken into prose; I want to see who’ll grovel at that). And I’m also, every day, writing poems that will be my second book of poetry. Which so far appears to be about problems of capital.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: It helps me to think of a poem as a house you can demolish. When the lines aren’t budging but I know they can move, I like to start knocking down walls and prying up floorboards and putting the rooms back together the wrong way, with new lighting and banisters. Experimental editing is something I urge upon myself, and more times than I can count it’s resulted in a radi­cally different poem that I had to essentially destroy in order to make.

ADVICE: Any advice people give only distracts other people from writing the book they need to write. In my life and in my writing I’ve been grateful when I can stop and remind myself to revolt against what revolts me. Always un­settle myself into myself, if you will. I’m always asking myself to write the poem and the book and the sentence that I don’t want to write.

AGE: 28.

RESIDENCE: Brooklyn, New York, and the Catskills.

JOB: I write books and read poems aloud for a living. I publish poems written by other people and I have conversations about art and politics for a living. At some point we all have to make our own distinctions between living and money. To make money I work as an editor, a booking agent, and an occasional book critic.

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? It’s a little war every day, and you have to antagonize the conflict in a new way every day. The simple answer is never. I find that most jobs are the opposite of writing, or creating any art that will matter to people. I felt this for the first time when I was young, and ever since then I’ve written poetry from a place where the poems want to jam themselves into the gearworks of this problem.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: About four years. Some of the poems were drafted and edited for years. A few poems were written in a fever pitch and finished within a week or two.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: My publisher was actually the one who found me. I read a poem in a really crowded basement bar in Boston about two years ago and she was in the audience; she got in touch with me a few days later and asked if I’d written a book. I wish that scenario happened more in poetry. Before that I mailed the book around to publishers for about a year.

Danniel Schoonebeek reads five poems from American Barricade. For more of Schoonebeek’s work visit dannielschoonebeek.tumblr.com

***

Tarfia Faizullah
SEAM
Southern Illinois University Press (Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award)

How thin
the seam between
the world and the world:
a few layers of muscle
and fat, a sheet wrapped
around a corpse: glass
so easily ground into sand.
from “Reading Tranströmer in Bangladesh”

HOW IT BEGAN: I learned about the wide­spread rape of Bangladeshi women by the Pakistani Army during the 1971 Liberation War. I wanted to know more, and I applied for a Fulbright fellowship to go to Bangladesh and interview the women. A number of them are still alive. Seam emerged from my time there.

INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES: The courage of other artists who share beautiful and difficult stories about the conversations taking place between their interior and exterior lives. I’m in awe of Detroit poets: Vievee Francis, Nandi Comer, francine j. harris, Jamaal May, Matthew Olzmann, and Tommye Blount. I’m moved by Eugenia Leigh’s Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows and David Tomas Martinez’s Hustle. I always return to poets in translation such as Rumi, Hikmet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Anna Akhmatova, César Vallejo, and Tomas Tranströmer.

WHAT’S NEXT: A second book of poems, Register of Eliminated Villages, and a memoir, Kafir.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: I try to get into the physicality of what the vastness inside and around me looks like. I listen to the train going past our house and wonder at the science and magic that collided to cre­ate its vibrations. I wonder who decided to write the informational signs at the top of a mountain during a hike, and what that person looks like. The world isn’t material for my poems; it’s its own fabric and when I’m not writing, I’m disconnected from it. For me, what keeps me going is mindfully rolling around in the world and feeling it in my whole body.

ADVICE: Let yourself be surprised. Relentlessly do the work of mak­ing every word of every line of every poem sing. Make mistakes and let them lead you into unexpected and wondrous places. A quote that has become my mantra is by the poet Russell Edson, who said, “Desire and patience takes us where we want to go.”

AGE: 34.

RESIDENCE: Detroit.

JOB: I teach at the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program as the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor in Poetry, and codirect the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press and Video Series with Jamaal May.

DOES YOUR JOB ALLOW TIME TO WRITE? Absolutely. Even when it doesn’t seem like there’s time, there’s always more.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: Five years.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: Two years.

Tarfia Faizullah reads the poem “Instructions for the Interviewer” from Seam, published by Southern Illinois University Press. For more of Faizullah’s work visit tfaizullah.com.

 

 

Melissa Faliveno is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

[Credits]

Ilustrations by Eugene Smith; books by David Hamsley

Instapoets Prove Powerful in Print

by

Maggie Millner

6.13.18

Since its inception in 2010, Instagram has spawned whole new genres of visual entertainment. From tattoo artists to cookie decorators, savvy users of the photo- and video-sharing platform have attracted viral followings that often galvanize lucrative commercial ventures offline. The same goes for poetry: Not only has the platform served as a launchpad for some of the most widely read poets in recent history, but it has also helped them sell thousands—sometimes millions—of books.

In fact, books by “Instapoets” constituted nearly half of all poetry book sales in 2017, which, according to NPD BookScan, nearly doubled since 2016. Leading the sales roster was Rupi Kaur, whose debut collection, Milk and Honey (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015), sold more than a million copies in print last year and who boasts in excess of 2.6 million followers on Instagram, including pop star Ariana Grande. Kaur’s second book, The Sun and Her Flowers, also published by Andrews McMeel, debuted at the No. 1 spot on the New York Times paperback best-seller list when it was released in October 2017; it stayed there for twenty weeks and has sold more than 1.2 million copies. Kaur’s poetry epitomizes the prevailing Instapoetic style, with its epigrammatic brevity, plain language, and empowering messages, and she also supplements her verse with glamorous selfies and hand-drawn illustrations. But while Kaur may be the highest-grossing poet of the moment, she is hardly alone in making the successful transition from social media to print; twelve of the twenty best-selling poets of 2017 got their start on Instagram.

Other writers on that list include Amanda Lovelace, r.h. Sin, and the pseudonymous Atticus, whose debut collection, Love Her Wild, was published last year by Simon & Schuster’s Atria Books imprint. The book was a national best-seller and landed Atticus among the top ten best-selling poets of 2017. His Instagram following has also more than doubled since the book’s publication, currently comprising more than 700,000 fans. Like Love Her Wild, most commercially successful books by Instapoets contain a number of poems that don’t appear on the authors’ social media pages, incentivizing serious fans to buy a copy, and the books differ from most traditional poetry collections in their inclusion of photography and illustrations, maintaining the visual quality that has helped make Instagram so popular. Social media can also serve as a free marketing tool; Instapoets often advertise book deals, discounts, new editions, and tour dates online.

Still, as Sarah Cantin, senior editor at Atria Books, points out, “Viral online followings do not guarantee commercial book sales.” Instead Cantin attributes the success of Love Her Wild to Atticus’s talent for storytelling across a range of mediums, as well as the book’s pleasing design and the cultural hunger for pithy, motivational writing that “makes the reader feel seen.”

Sara Sargent, executive editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, echoes this sentiment. “Instapoetry is the height of feeling that your lived experience is shared,” says Sargent, who recently edited Light Filters In, the debut collection of eighteen-year-old Instapoet Caroline Kaufman, published in May. Sargent sees books like Kaufman’s straddling several markets; they’re poetry but with a young adult spin, supplemental artwork, and even dimensions of the self-help genre. “Instapoetry is part of the growing cultural trend around self-care and self-discovery,” she says. “Journaling, coloring books, self-help: It all has to do with our commitment to figuring out who we are.”

No publisher has cornered that market more effectively than Andrews McMeel, which, in addition to being one of the first companies to produce adult coloring books, published eleven of the top twenty best-selling poets last year, including Kaur, Sin, and Lovelace. Kirsty Melville, McMeel’s president and publisher, ascribes the wild success of the Instapoets in her catalogue to “the emotional intensity, passion, and message of their work, which resonates with us at a time when many young people feel disaffected from the mainstream.” She adds: “I think the digital age has facilitated a connection between writers and readers. In addition, although these poets share their work online, publication in book form is also cherished. The book is one of the oldest, most successful, and most valued inventions for sharing ideas.”

But as Instapoetry has taken up more and more space on poetry shelves at bookstores around the world, the craze has also had its fair share of detractors, who consider the writing trite and unrefined, bearing a tenuous relationship to poetic traditions before and beyond the Internet. (A 2017 article from Deadspin calls Kaur’s poetry “pitiful, vapid, exploitative, and possibly plagiarized.”) When asked whether Instapoetry might function as a gateway to other kinds of poetry, editors and writers give mixed responses; many think the Internet subgenre is helping to reinvigorate a cultural interest in poetry in general, while others consider Instapoetry a pop phenomenon with little connection to the literary world. Still others refute the distinction altogether.

Related or not, book sales are up for both traditional print poetry and Instapoetry. “Poetry on the whole feels revitalized right now,” says Cantin. “If more bookstores create table displays featuring poets of all backgrounds, if more young people, in particular, feel that poetry is relevant to their daily lives, so much the better for the publishing industry and for readers alike.” When asked why he thinks people continue to buy poetry in an age when new technologies threaten to replace the old, Atticus replied with his signature Instapoetic brevity: “There’s a magic there you can’t find online.”  

 

Maggie Millner holds an MFA from New York University and lives in Brooklyn. Previously she was the Diana & Simon Raab Editorial Fellow at Poets & Writers Magazine

Rupi Kaur

(Credit: Nabil Shash)

A Revolution in Listening

by

Thea Prieto

4.11.18

In 1952 in New York City, Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Roney recorded Dylan Thomas reciting a few of his poems, including the famous villanelle “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Released on vinyl later that year, the recording offered a rare chance to hear Thomas, who worked for years as a radio broadcaster, read the poem and its memorable last refrain, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” It also marked the launch of Caedmon Records, a label dedicated to restoring the spoken tradition of poetry and stories and creating, as its slogan read, “a third dimension for the printed page.” Caedmon Records became Caedmon Audio when it was acquired by HarperCollins in 1987 and made the switch from vinyl to CDs. To this day, the label is still often credited as having laid the foundation for the audiobook industry.

Caedmon’s vinyl recordings seemed to be a thing of the past until January, when HarperAudio/Caedmon announced a new series of literary vinyl, to be released throughout 2018. The imprint’s first title, a recording of actor Nate Corddry reading Joe Hill’s story “Dark Carousel,” came out in April, and records by Nikki Giovanni, Neil Gaiman, and Daniel Handler (also known as Lemony Snicket) will be released later this year.

HarperCollins isn’t the only big publisher to venture into vinyl. In February Hachette Audio launched a new vinyl audiobook series with its first title, David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water. Later this year the imprint will release recordings by David Sedaris, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Amanda Palmer, among others. Both HarperCollins and Hachette are looking to capitalize on the unexpected revival of vinyl in recent years, despite the format’s near-demise in the 1980s with the introduction of CDs. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, revenues from vinyl were as high in 2015 as they were in 1988. Jeff Bowers of Wax, the independent record label partnering with both Hachette Audio and Harper Audio, said in a January press release, “This well-curated, thoughtful series of spoken-word releases is a response to the tremendous growth in audiobooks and vinyl, part of a new moment in what has become a listening revolution.”

In the foreground of this revolution are Third Man Books and Fonograf Editions, independent literary presses committed to recording language on vinyl. Even as music streaming dominates as a listening format, Third Man Books and Fonograf Editions aim for a literary listening experience that is both meaningful and tangible, that necessitates the physicality and fuller sound of a vinyl record. “People were saying fifteen, twenty years ago that records were going to go away,” says Chet Weise, cofounder of Third Man Books. “People said paper books were going to go away too. The craze is settling down, and paper books are still a majority of what people read. There is something to [their] tangibility. It isn’t just rationalizing that these things we love are worth something and should stay around.”

Third Man Books is the partner publisher of Third Man Records, launched in 2001 by multi-Grammy-winning musician Jack White in Detroit. In 2014 Third Man Records claimed the best-selling vinyl album since Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy in 1994 with White’s Lazaretto. The label also boasts “the world’s only live venue with direct-to-acetate recording capabilities” in Nashville, where writers as well as musicians can record their work straight to vinyl. “For me, poetry has to exist in the audio spectrum—got to hear those words with some breath behind them,” says Weise. “It’s music, and if we believe that music sounds best on vinyl and is best presented on vinyl, we’re going to put poetry on vinyl too.”

Third Man Books released its inaugural title, Language Lessons: Volume 1, in 2014, a box set that includes an anthology of contemporary poetry and prose by writers and musicians such as C. D. Wright, Adrian Matejka, Richard Hell, and Tav Falco, plus two vinyl LPs of jazz, psychedelic punk, poetry, blues, and pop, and five poetry broadsides. Since then Third Man Books has maintained a multimedia aesthetic; its April release, Destruction of Man, a book-length poem about farming by Abraham Smith, includes photography and an audio flexi disc of Smith reading his own poetry.

Jeff Alessandrelli, the director of Fonograf Editions, shares Weise’s reverence for literary vinyl. “It allows for a listening experience that is also an emotional experience,” he says. “When I listen to an MP3, I don’t get the same emotional sensation that I get when I listen to a record.”

Fonograf Editions, an imprint of Portland, Oregon–based independent publisher Octopus Books, was established in 2016. Since then the vinyl-only poetry press has quickly garnered national attention by releasing records featuring readings by Rae Armantrout, Eileen Myles, and Alice Notley, who performed her work live in Seattle. Fonograf’s latest record, Harmony Holiday’s The Black Saint and the Sinnerman, released in March, features poetry by Holiday along with music sampled from Charles Mingus’s 1963 album, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

“We live in a digital age, and I think in a lot of ways that’s great; it streamlines a lot of experiences,” says Alessandrelli. “But I think increasingly there’s going to be both the desire and a need for things that are tactile and for things that you can hold on to, and that means something greater than an MP3.” For more and more readers, listeners, record labels, and publishers, that something can be found with a needle traversing the grooves on a vinyl record. 

 

Thea Prieto writes and edits for Portland Review, Propeller Magazine, the Gravity of the Thing, and Oregon Music News. Her website is theaprieto.com.                              

Ten Writers Reading Ten Short Stories for Short Story Month

by

Staff

5.11.17

In celebration of Short Story Month, we’ve assembled ten of our favorite audio recordings of authors reading from story collections featured in Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin over the past five years. All of them were recorded exclusively for Poets & Writers Magazine and illustrate the irresistible and inspiring power of the short form. 

Roxane Gay reads “Florida” from Difficult Women (Grove Press, 2017). 

 

 

Mia Alvar reads “Legends of the White Lady” from In the Country (Knopf, 2015). 

 

 

Kelly Link reads “Light” from Get in Trouble (Random House, 2015). 

 

 

Kyle Minor reads “The Question of Where We Begin” from Praying Drunk (Sarabande Books, 2014). 

 

 

Laura van den Berg reads “I Looked For You, I Called Your Name” from The Isle of Youth (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). 

 

 

Aimee Bender reads “Appleless” and “Tiger Mending” from The Color Master (Doubleday, 2013). 

 

 

Rebecca Lee reads “Bobcat” from Bobcat and Other Stories (Algonquin Books, 2013). 

 

 

Jessica Francis Kane reads “Lucky Boy” from This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013). 

 

 

Manuel Gonzales reads “Pilot, Copilot, Writer,” from The Miniature Wife and Other Stories (Riverhead Books, 2013). 

 

 

Marie-Helene Bertino reads “Free Ham” from Safe as Houses (University of Iowa Press, 2012). 

 

Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin

by

Staff

4.12.17

With so many good books being published every month, some literary titles worth exploring can get lost in the stacks. Page One offers the first lines of a dozen recently released books, including Mary Gaitskill’s Somebody With a Little Hammer and Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, for a glimpse into the worlds of these new and noteworthy titles.

“Manacled to a whelm.” Fast (Ecco, May 2017) by Jorie Graham. Fourteenth book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Daniel Halpern. Publicist: Martin Wilson.

“On occasion, the two women went to lunch and she came home offended by some pettiness.” The Dinner Party (Little, Brown, May 2017) by Joshua Ferris. Fourth book, first story collection. Agent: Julie Barer. Editor: Reagan Arthur. Publicist: Carrie Neill.

“I’ve been dreaming about my violin.” Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung (Crown Publishing Group, April 2017) by Min Kym. First book, memoir. Agent: Annabel Merullo. Editor: Rachel Klayman. Publicist: Rebecca Welbourn.

“That year, toward the end of my childhood, I was living in Jacmel, a coastal village in Haiti.” Hadriana in All My Dreams (Akashic Books, May 2017) by René Depestre, translated from the French by Kaiama L. Glover. Fifteenth of twenty-seven books, third of four novels. Agent: None. Editor: Johnny Temple. Publicist: Susannah Lawrence.

“Specialist Smith gunned the gas and popped the clutch in the early Ozark morning.” The Standard Grand (St. Martin’s Press, April 2017) by Jay Baron Nicorvo. Second book, first novel. Agent: Jennifer Carlson. Editor: Elisabeth Dyssegaard. Publicist: Dori Weintraub.

“Ezinma fumbles the keys against the lock and doesn’t see what came behind her: Her father as a boy when he was still tender, vying for his mother’s affection.” What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky (Riverhead, April 2017) by Lesley Nneka Arimah. First book, story collection. Agent: Samantha Shea. Editor: Rebecca Saletan. Publicist: Claire McGinnis.

“I did not have a religious upbringing, and for most of my life I’ve considered that a good thing; I’ve since come to know people who felt nurtured by their religious families, but for a long time, for me, ‘religious upbringing’ meant the two little girls I once walked home with in the fourth grade who, on hearing that I didn’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, began screaming, ‘There’s a sin in your soul! You’re going to Hell!’” Somebody With a Little Hammer (Pantheon Books, April 2017) by Mary Gaitskill. Seventh book, first essay collection. Agent: Jin Auh. Editor: Deborah Garrison. Publicist: Michiko Clark.

“Descending the subway stairs / in a crowd of others, slow / steps, everyone a little / hunched in their coats, probably / as unhappy as I was / to have to go to work.” The Others (Wave Books, May 2017) by Matthew Rohrer. Eighth book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Matthew Zapruder. Publicist: Ryo Yamaguchi.

“I’ll begin our story with that afternoon, after we hadn’t spoken for a year—like so many years when we didn’t speak—when you pulled up next to me on my walk to work and offered me a ride.” Sunshine State (Harper Perennial, April 2017) by Sarah Gerard. Second book, first essay collection. Agent: Adriann Ranta. Editor: Erin Wicks. Publicist: Martin Wilson. 

“It was summer.” Woman No. 17 (Hogarth, May 2017) by Edan Lepucki. Second book, novel. Agent: Erin Hosier. Editor: Lindsay Sagnette. Publicist: Rachel Rokicki.

“Every turning toward is a turning away: / poets have always known the truth / of this.” The Trembling Answers (BOA Editions, April 2017) by Craig Morgan Teicher. Fourth book, third poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Peter Conners. Publicist: Ron Martin-Dent.

“When Albert Murray said / the second law adds up to / the blues that in other words / ain’t nothing nothing he meant it” Field Theories (Nightboat Books, April 2017) by Samiya Bashir. Third book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Kazim Ali. Publicist: Lindsey Boldt.

Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin

by

Staff

4.11.18

With so many good books being published every month, some literary titles worth exploring can get lost in the stacks. Page One offers the first lines of a dozen recently released books, including How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee.

“By some concoction of sugar, prescription painkillers, rancor, and cocaine, my father, Gregory Pardlo, Sr., began killing himself after my parents separated in 2007.” Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America (Knopf, April 2018) by Gregory Pardlo. Third book, first memoir. Agent: Rob McQuilkin. Editor: Maria Goldverg. Publicist: Jessica Purcell.

“I am running late for the airport, trying to catch a cab on my street corner.” Look Alive Out There (MCD Books, April 2018) by Sloane Crosley. Fourth book, third essay collection. Agent: Jay Mandel. Editor: Sean McDonald. Publicists: Jeff Seroy and Kimberly Burns.

“Between Hanoi and Sapa there are clean slabs of rice fields / and no two brick houses in a row.” Eye Level (Graywolf Press, April 2018) by Jenny Xie. First book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Jeff Shotts. Publicist: Caroline Nitz.

“I spent the summer I turned fifteen on an exchange program in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of the state of Chiapas, in Mexico, some three hundred miles north of the Guatemalan Border.” How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (Mariner Books, April 2018) by Alexander Chee. Third book, first essay collection. Agent: Jin Auh. Editor: Naomi Gibbs. Publicist: Michelle Triant.

“Strangers are building a new house next door.” Negative Space (New Directions, April 2018) by Luljeta Lleshanaku, translated from the Albanian by Ani Gjika. Eleventh book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Jeffrey Yang. Publicist: Mieke Chew.

“Tucker had been walking for six hours through early morning ground fog that rose in shimmering waves.” Country Dark (Grove Press, April 2018) by Chris Offutt. Seventh book, second novel. Agent: Nicole Aragi. Editor: Amy Hundley. Publicist: John Mark Boling.

“Riley wore blue contact lenses and bleached his hair—which he worked with gel and a blow-dryer and a flatiron some mornings into Sonic the Hedgehog spikes so stiff you could prick your finger on them, and sometimes into a wispy side-swooped bob with long bangs—and he was black.” Heads of the Colored People (37 INK, April 2018) by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. First book, story collection. Agent: Anna Stein. Editor: Dawn Davis. Publicist: Yona Deshommes.

“The book lied.” That Kind of Mother (Ecco, May 2018) by Rumaan Alam. Second book, novel. Agent: Julie Barer. Editor: Megan Lynch. Publicist: Sonya Cheuse.

“It’s a love story, the famous violinist had said, and even though Jana knew it was not, those were the words that knocked around her brain when she began to play on stage.” The Ensemble (Riverhead Books, May 2018) by Aja Gabel. First book, novel. Agent: Andrea Morrison. Editor: Laura Perciasepe. Publicist: Liz Hohenadel.

“Frenching with a mouthful of M&M’s dunno if I feel polluted / or into it—the lights go low across the multiplex Temple of // canoodling and Junk food” Junk (Tin House Books, May 2018) by Tommy Pico. Third book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Tony Perez. Publicist: Sabrina Wise.

“When I was five years old, back when my old man was still sort of around, I watched a promotional video for Disneyland that my mom got in the free box of VHS tapes at the library.” Lawn Boy (Algonquin Books, April 2018) by Jonathan Evison. Fifth book, novel. Agent: Mollie Glick. Editor: Chuck Adams. Publicist: Brooke Csuka.

“There is a hole.” The Dream of Reason (Copper Canyon Press, April 2018) by Jenny George. First book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Michael Wiegers. Publicist: Laura Buccieri.

The Endangered Poetry Project

by

Maggie Millner

2.14.18

Nearly half the world’s languages are endangered to some extent, with one language becoming extinct roughly every two weeks, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Barring swift revitalization efforts, more than 2,500 of the nearly 7,000 tongues spoken in the world today are predicted to disappear by the end of the century. More than two hundred, such as Peru’s Panobo and Angola’s Kwisi languages, have become extinct since 1950.

Losing a language is not like losing a precious ancient artifact, such as a piece of jewelry or a Grecian urn. A language is not a synchronic object, encapsulating a culture at a single moment in time, but rather a dynamic force that binds people together within a shared, ongoing history. When a language vanishes, it takes with it something intrinsic and irreplaceable about human experience in general and a marginalized culture in particular. Chris McCabe, the poetry librarian at Southbank Centre’s National Poetry Library in London, had this in mind when he launched the Endangered Poetry Project, which seeks to collect poetry written in endangered languages and archive it in the library’s permanent holdings.

McCabe first conceived of the project, which launched in the fall, after coming across a striking bit of literary trivia: Instead of the official Latin expected of him, Dante composed the Divine Comedy in a medieval Tuscan vernacular. “That got me thinking about how many great poems there might be out there in dialects and endangered languages,” says McCabe. “After looking into endangered languages more closely, I realized how many languages are under threat.”

At the time, Southbank Centre’s National Poetry Library already included poems in more than two hundred languages. Within its first three months, the Endangered Poetry Project had ushered in over a dozen more, including the Shetlandic dialect of Scots as well as Kristang, a severely endangered creole language spoken in Singapore and parts of Malaysia by a community of mixed Portuguese and Asian descent. McCabe and his team crowdsource poems from around the world, and encourage anyone familiar with a well-known poem in an endangered language to submit it through the project’s website (www.southbankcentre.co.uk/endangered-poetry). After collecting both written and audio versions of each poem, staff members at the National Poetry Library then print them on handmade paper and store them in a specially made conservation box. Although the foremost goal of the initiative is to gather poems in their original languages, McCabe also strives to procure English translations whenever possible. There are also plans to make some poems accessible online, and McCabe says that the initiative will “continue in perpetuity to gather poems from languages under risk.”

The fear of losing language—and specifically losing the poetry of a language, which can often help crystallize and communicate the experiential and linguistic information of a given culture—is part of what motivates McCabe, who is also a widely published poet and writer. “Poetry has a place in most cultures and languages where other art forms might not have gained traction,” he says. “This could easily have to do with economic factors—poetry costs nothing to create, especially in oral forms—and also with the fact that when a language comes into existence, it becomes the material for the human imagination to capture events, ideas, and emotions.”

The Endangered Poetry Project owes some of its early success to a rousing inaugural event in October during the fiftieth anniversary of Poetry International, a biennial poetry festival in London founded at the Southbank Centre by poet Ted Hughes in 1967. During the event, called “Seven Thousand Words for Human,” multinational poets Joy Harjo, Nineb Lamassu, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, and Nick Makoha read pieces they had written for the occasion in languages such as the Ugandan Luganda and Muscogee Creek. Southbank Centre translator-in-residence and festival organizer Stephen Watts furnished English translations of each poem, and a member of the public even volunteered to recite a poem in the Logudorese dialect of Sardinian.

Another highlight for McCabe was the moment, a few weeks later, when he received a selection of poet Claude Vigée’s “Schwàrzi Sengessle Flàckere ém Wénd” (“Black Nettles Blaze in the Wind”), a long Alsatian requiem written in tribute to the language, which was banned in schools in the Alsace region after World War II. The poem is special to McCabe because it captures the anguish of losing one’s native tongue: “Our hoarse voices, broken long ago / Suddenly stopped: / Already, on our school bench, / In the thrall of the forceps of language / We felt like tongue-cripples / Tangled up in our songs.”

 

Maggie Millner teaches creative writing at New York University, where she is pursuing an MFA in poetry. Previously she was the Diana & Simon Raab Editorial Fellow at Poets & Writers Magazine.

The National Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre in London.

(Credit: India Roper-Evans)

The American Prison Writing Archive

by

Gila Lyons

12.13.17

In the fall of 2009 writer Doran Larson put out a call for essays from incarcerated people and prison staff about what life was like inside, and five years later, in 2014, Michigan State University Press published a selection of them as Fourth City: Essays From the Prison in America. But the essays never stopped coming. “I’m holding a handwritten essay that just arrived today,” Larson said in August. “Once people knew there was a venue where someone would read their work, they kept writing.” Instead of letting this steady stream of essays go unread, Larson decided to create the American Prison Writing Archive (APWA), an open-source archive of essays by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, as well as correctional officers and staffers. Accessible to anyone online, the APWA (apw.dhinitiative.org) is a “virtual meeting place” to “spread the voices of unheard populations.”

With more than 2.2 million people in its prisons and jails, the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. But most Americans don’t know anything about life inside, which can leave them both indifferent to those who live and work there and divorced from the justice system their tax dollars reinforce. Larson hopes to rectify this disconnect with the APWA, and after receiving a $262,000 grant in March from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the archive is poised to do just that.

Larson, who teaches literature and creative writing at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, first became involved with the incarcerated population when a friend invited him to a discussion group at Attica Correctional Facility, a New York state prison. Larson listened to men speak about how they were coping with being in prison and was “floored by the honesty and earnestness of those conversations,” he says. A few months later he started a writing group at Attica and became interested in prison writing as a genre. “I spent two summers at the Library of Congress reading all the prison writing I could. I wanted to start an undergraduate course on it. There are a few anthologies of [work by] political prisoners like Martin Luther King Jr. and some small collections from prison writing workshops, but I couldn’t find a wide, national sampling from currently incarcerated people.”

With more than 1,200 essays from people all across the country, the APWA fills that need. The database currently holds three million words’ worth of writing, enough to fill more than eighteen volumes the size of Fourth City, which is a hefty 338 pages. “While reading individual essays can be moving and inspiring, it’s reading in the aggregate that’s valuable and instructive,” says Larson. “One of the extraordinary things has been to see the same themes emerging: staff violence, neglect and abuse at home, drug and alcohol addiction, police aggression.” These shared experiences are part of what inspired Larson to name the collection Fourth City—to represent the fact that the prison and jail population in the United States is larger than that of Houston, Texas, currently the fourth largest city in the country,  and that stories told from inside any prison in the nation can seem as if they’re all coming from the same place.

The APWA is part of Hamilton College’s Digital Humanities Initiative. With additional funding for the archive from the NEH grant, Larson plans to continue to solicit, preserve, digitize, and disseminate the work of incarcerated people and prison workers and to hire a part-time assistant. The grant will also go toward finishing an online tool that will allow anyone to transcribe handwritten essays into fully searchable texts and to improve the site’s search functions so users can search by author attribute (race, religion, age, ethnicity), keyword, location, and more.

Larson hopes the archive will be a resource that people will use regularly for academic, policy, and social research. “In the age of big data, we’re trying to help create the era of big narrative, people writing very concretely about what works and doesn’t work,” he says. “Policy-makers might consult this to investigate: How much human pain might be caused because of this policy? When does the law become little more than legalized suffering?” Larson published a book last July, Witness in the Era of Mass Incarceration (Rowman & Littlefield), that compared prison writing in Ireland, Africa, and the United States; he is currently working on another book about the archive tentatively titled “Ethics in the Era of Mass Incarceration.”

The APWA doesn’t espouse any political view. “The advocacy is done by the writers,” Larson says. “You read ten Holocaust or slave narratives and no one has to tell you what the message is. The difference is that there is a fixed number of slave and Holocaust narratives. But this collection will continue to grow.”      

 

Gila Lyons has written about feminism, mental health, and social justice for Salon, Vox, Cosmopolitan, the Huffington Post, Good Magazine, and other publications. Find her on Twitter, @gilalyons, or on her website, gilalyons.com.

Doran Larson, founder of the American Prison Writing Archive. 

Lit Mag Gives Voice to Homeless

by

Adrienne Raphel

10.12.16

Every Tuesday morning, twenty to thirty writers gather in a meeting room in the basement of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Tremont Street in Boston. Each member of the Black Seed Writers Group gets a pen and a yellow legal pad and, after catching up with one another, sits down and gets to work. The writing they produce will eventually fill the pages of the Pilgrim, a literary magazine celebrating its fifth anniversary this December. The Pilgrim looks like just about any of the small literary magazines lining the shelves of local bookstores and cafés, but it is different in one major respect: Its contributors are all part of Boston’s homeless community. 

The Pilgrim is the brainchild of James Parker, a contributing editor and cultural columnist for the Atlantic. In 2011, while on a sixty-mile pilgrimage with the MANNA ministry of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Parker was inspired to launch the writers group and journal with the idea of pilgrimage as a guiding theme. “Homelessness is a state of acute pilgrimage,” writes Parker on the journal’s website, “a condition of material and occasionally moral emergency, and thus a place where the world reveals itself under the pressure, or the pouring-in, of a higher reality.” When he returned from his own pilgrimage, Parker established the Black Seed Writers Group to give homeless people in downtown Boston an opportunity to gather, write, and share their work. The group is named for the nearby café where it first met, but its ranks soon swelled beyond the café’s capacity and it moved to the cathedral next door. Each week, Parker provides a few open-ended prompts to get the writers going. There is no formal workshop, and anyone who is homeless, recently housed, or transitioning into a home is welcome to join. Members of the group come and go, though each week there are at least a few regulars.

“If we’re the Black Seed Writers Group,” says Margaret Miranda, a writer in the group, “the people helping us are mission figs: They surround the black seeds at the center, they’re nurturing, and they’re on a mission. Besides,” she adds, “think of the literary significance of figs.” (When Miranda presented her metaphor to Parker, he asked her if that makes him a mad vegetable. Miranda replied, “In forty years, you will be.”) In addition to Parker, the other volunteers who help facilitate the workshop include Kate Glavin, an MFA student at the University of Massachusetts in Boston; Libby Gatti, a diocese intern; and James Kraus, a graphic artist who refers to himself as “the other James.” 

Miranda and several other regulars set the group’s tone: After a few minutes of greeting and banter, they settle into their various writing processes and work diligently through the hour. A man named Joe dictates into his phone and transcribes his recording; Steven thumbs through a dictionary; Cody paces back and forth before plunging into his work. Rob, a wiry writer in a Red Sox hoodie, brews the coffee.

“This is the most punk-rock thing I’ve ever been part of,” says Parker, who first connected with the homeless community through music. At age twenty-two, Parker was immersed in Washington, D.C.’s independent music scene, and discovered the city’s Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), a thriving facility for the homeless, through the liner notes of a music album. Parker lived at CCNV as a volunteer for several months, but soon moved to Boston and lost touch with the homeless community over the next two decades, until founding the writers group.

After each session, Parker gathers all the work and splits it among himself and the other volunteers to transcribe. He then prints the writing in packets that he distributes the following Tuesday. Within a week of attending the Black Seed Writers Group, therefore, every participant is a published author; additionally, the packet entices writers to return the next week. Parker then chooses work from these packets to include in the Pilgrim, which he publishes eight to ten times per year. The Pilgrim is printed right where it’s produced; the administration at the church lets Parker use its printers, and subscription fees—the journal has a circulation of a few hundred—provide funding for the paper and ink. 

As a writer himself, Parker believes fervently in the power of publication. While he was writing his first book, his wife had one of the chapters printed as a chapbook, and it transformed the way Parker approached his work: “It was so powerful to me to have something published,” he says. When he founded the Pilgrim, the heart of his mission was to publish as many voices as possible—particularly those that would normally go unheard. In 2015, according to government census figures, the homeless population of Boston was 7,663—a 5.6 percent increase from the previous year. Since it was established, in December 2011, the Pilgrim has published more than 150 different writers.

The Pilgrim does not have a specific style; instead, writers are encouraged to find their own style, and to push their voices deeper. Participants write poems, stories, memoirs, prayers, protests, and everything in between. One regular attendee, Rolando, is a journalist who catalogues various aspects of life at the shelter through a series of bullet points that create something between a list, a poem, and an essay. One week he wrote about lost property; the next week he categorized the various safety nets at the shelter. Cody writes prophetic images from his imagination. He describes a dream cover for his book, were he to write one: a rendering of the globe with a seven-headed serpentine monster crawling out of a deep chasm in the center.

In 2014 Parker expanded the Pilgrim to include a book imprint, No Fixed Address Press. Its first publication was Paul Estes’s science fiction novel, Razza Freakin’ Aliens, a madcap space opera featuring the intergalactic adventures of Dave the Spy, who encounters many multispecies creatures, such as rebel alien cats that yell, “Hairrbawlz, kill ’em all!” This year, the press published Miranda’s debut collection of poetry, Dressing Wounds on Tremont Street. The book is at once devotional and jocular, weaving together portentous subjects with light banter; think John Donne meets Kenneth Koch. 

 

Now, Parker says, No Fixed Address Press is concentrating on what he calls broadsheets—chapbook-length collections that are easier, cheaper, and quicker to produce than full-length books. Any profits that the Pilgrim and No Fixed Address Press might bring in from sales go directly into producing the next publications. Parker is excited to watch the group’s reach naturally expand, but is careful to avoid a “dissipation of essence,” as he puts it. As the group grows, it’s important for Parker to maintain an environment of openness, encouragement, and safety—an intimate space where members can nurture each other as writers. “We want growth that’s real growth,” said Parker. “Growth as writers.” 

Adrienne Raphel is the author of What Was It For (Rescue Press, 2017) and But What Will We Do (Seattle Review, 2016). Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Paris Review Daily, Poetry, Lana Turner Journal, Prelude, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a doctoral candidate at Harvard University. 

Literature and the Environment

by

Maggie Millner

8.16.17

In 1992 in Reno, Nevada, a group of scholars and writers founded the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) to promote interdisciplinary research and conversation about the connections between humans and the natural world. Comprising professionals in both the humanities and the sciences, ASLE encourages collaboration, supports environmental education, and convenes a community around the twin goals of literary excellence and ecological sustainability. Now, twenty-five years later, the organization is more robust—and necessary—than ever.

The intersections of poetry and conservation biology, or speculative fiction and environmental activism, may not seem intuitive. But in the early 1990s many scholars working at the crossroads of these increasingly siloed disciplines sought a way to share ideas and enlist creative, scientific, and ethical advice from specialists in other fields. With the advent of ASLE, members gained access to a directory of multidisciplinary scholars, as well as environmental studies curricula, a list of awards and grants, mentoring programs, and a bibliography of ecological writing, among other resources. In 1993, ASLE launched the semiannual (now quarterly) journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, which publishes academic articles in addition to poetry, nonfiction, and book reviews.

Since 1995, ASLE has also hosted a biennial conference, each event held in a different U.S. city, at which intellectual cross-pollination and collaboration can happen in person. The twelfth conference, titled “Rust/Resistance: Works of Recovery,” took place in June and doubled as a celebration of ASLE’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Hosted by Wayne State University in Detroit, the 2017 conference featured more than eight hundred presenters as well as keynote addresses by writers and environmentalists such as poet Ross Gay and historian and novelist Tiya Miles. According to ASLE copresident Christoph Irmscher, these conferences serve as “sustained intellectual experiences in which an array of amazing speakers complements the serious conversations that take place in individual panels.”

ASLE’s quarter-centennial comes at a critical moment. As an organization committed equally to literature and to environmentalism, ASLE and its membership are doubly threatened by the massive rollbacks in arts and climate spending proposed by the Trump administration. The White House’s 2018 budget plan, unveiled in May, would slash funding to the Environmental Protection Agency by nearly a third, eliminating 20 percent of its workforce and leaving the agency with its smallest budget in forty years, adjusting for inflation. Predicated on a staunch denial of the urgent reality of climate change, the plan proposes crippling reductions to programs that clean up toxic waste, determine the safety of drinking water, and research and predict natural disasters, among others.

In June, President Trump announced that the United States will also be withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, an agreement between nearly two hundred nations to reduce emissions and mitigate global warming that was adopted by consensus in 2015. “As we have known ever since Rachel Carson, the environmental crisis can only be addressed globally, not within traditional national boundaries,” says Irmscher. Branches of ASLE have been established in nearly a dozen countries or regions outside the United States, including Brazil, India, and Japan, and this year’s ASLE conference drew around a thousand members from twenty-five countries. Irmscher describes the organization’s international, interdisciplinary conferences as its “pièce de résistance against Trumpian unilateralism.”

The Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget would also eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. Though such cuts seem unlikely at this point—Congress thus far having upheld federal funding for both agencies—the proposal itself is indicative of an attitude that devalues the importance of art and literature to American life and culture. In light of such threats, Irmscher looks to literature for models of political environmentalism. “Panels and presentations on Thoreau’s Walden—to mention one of the intellectual progenitors of ASLE—can no longer ignore the fact that his philosophy of resistance has assumed new importance in an era when the government systematically suppresses scientific evidence,” he says.

In a sense, the joint disavowal of both environmental protection and the arts can be seen as a confirmation of what ASLE has always known: that these disciplines are deeply linked and even interdependent—that, as Rachel Carson once said, “No one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.” In the face of these most recent threats, ASLE will continue to serve as a meeting point. “In a climate that discourages innovation, scientists have adopted new roles as dissenters and protesters,” says Irmscher. “As they unite and march, they find new allies in the arts and humanities that have long spoken truth to power. ASLE, whose core mission is to promote collaboration and public dialogue, provides an organizational framework for such new alliances.”
 

Maggie Millner teaches creative writing at NYU, where she is pursuing her MFA in poetry. Previously, she served as Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana and Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.              

Writers, Editors Resist

by

Sarah M. Seltzer

4.12.17

The Wednesday morning after Election Day delivered a political shock for just about everyone, including writers—but hot on the heels of the electoral surprise came an existential dilemma: How could writers attend to the quotidian concerns of sentence structure, agent-hunting, and sending out work when America was so divided on seemingly every major issue—from reproductive and LGBTQ rights to immigration laws and the environment? Like much of America that morning, many writers turned to their friends and colleagues for answers. “On Facebook, everyone was saying, ‘Now more than ever we need fiction, art, and books,’” says writer Anna March, who had spent time in Pennsylvania that week, knocking on doors for Hillary Clinton with her mother. “I got a little bit panicky. I thought, ‘Oh my God, are people really thinking that art is going to save us?’ Because it’s really about organizing and getting out the vote.” Similarly, fiction writer Paula Whyman, based in Bethesda, Maryland, described the morning after the election as a rare world-changing moment. “As a fiction writer I had a lot of questions in my mind about what would happen to fiction and how we would go on working,” she says. “Does it really matter now?”

Both Whyman and March reached for similar outlets to channel their doubts and reassert the power of writing. Whyman answered a call on Facebook by her friend, the writer Mikhail Iossel, for help launching a new publication and with a small group started Scoundrel Time, an international online journal intended to foster artistic expression in the face of political repression and fear. March, eager to harness the energy of the arts community for political activism, decided to start Roar Feminist Magazine, an online publication that would provide a platform for politically informed fiction, poetry, and essays—as well as a way to strike back against an election that frequently devolved into disrespectful language, most notably the leaked Access Hollywood tape showing Donald Trump making lewd comments about women. “We wanted to do something that was both literature and revolution,” says March. 

These efforts are part of a growing number of projects and events started by writers, editors, and literary organizations in response to the election and the current political climate. Poet Erin Belieu and PEN America organized Writers Resist rallies, which brought out thousands of writers and citizens in cities all across the United States on January 15, five days before the presidential inauguration, to “defend free expression, reject hatred, and uphold truth in the face of lies and misinformation.” Poet Major Jackson started a collaborative poem, “Renga for Obama,” at the Harvard Review, while the Boston Review released the poetry chapbook Poems for Political Disaster, and Melville House published What We Do Now, an essay collection focused on “standing up for your values in Trump’s America.” 

Roar and Scoundrel Time both launched in late January—Roar on Inauguration Day and Scoundrel Time ten days later—and have since produced an impressive body of work and attracted large followings in just a few short months. “The idea of starting a new journal would be laughed at otherwise,” says Whyman. “There are so many excellent journals doing beautiful work that I in no way want to compete. But I think of this as something entirely different.”

Indeed, the interest both magazines have received in terms of financial support and submissions suggest that the audience is engaged. With a very small inheritance from her grandmother, who died shortly before the election, March was able to launch the Roar website and with her collaborators held a successful crowdfunding campaign that raised $12,000 in just a few months. The Roar staff includes Sarah Sandman and  Bethanne Patrick as executive editors, Jagjeet Khalsa as production editor, and several section editors, including novelist Porochista Khakpour and humor writer Cynthia Heimel. The title is a play on the “pussy” motif that appeared on posters and signs, and in knitted hats, after Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood remarks were made public. According to March, the journal’s mission involves “roaring, not meowing.”

The most prominent feature of Roar, which publishes three new pieces each day, is a section called “My Abortion,” in which women relate their experiences with abortion. The daily column serves to remind readers of what’s at stake under the strongly antiabortion Trump administration. Other columns include the Roar Meter, which uses numbers to tell a story: “Number of votes by which Hillary Clinton won the popular vote: 2,864,974 / Number of Americans who receive Planned Parenthood services: 2,840,000” reads the beginning of one entry. A column called Fight This Hate highlights “a small selection of hate crimes and/or harassment,” alongside fiction, poetry, and art sections. “Think about if Guernica met the Nation or VQR met Mother Jones,” says March. “We want to be at the intersection of the finest writing and political activism.” The editors plan to expand in the spring by publishing six pieces a day and bringing on more explicitly political writers.

Scoundrel Time (named for the 1976 book by Lillian Hellman about the McCarthy era) is, in Whyman’s words, “a place for artists to respond as artists” to the postelection reality. “There are wonderful and thoughtful journalists and commentators, people at think tanks, and activists in every realm doing important things,” says Whyman. “But this is a place for artists to speak to what’s going on from their particular perspective. We can keep telling one another stories, and those stories will draw people in and give them some relief.” The journal is a registered nonprofit organization, and the all-volunteer staff plans to look into nonprofit partnerships. Slightly less confrontational in tone than Roar (though no less political), Scoundrel Time publishes fiction, photography, poetry, essays, and dispatches from around the world, with a focus on content that’s current. “The strongest argument I can think of for satire and parody is that despots and authoritarian regimes of all stripes hate it so,” Tony Eprile writes in a February essay tying recent Saturday Night Live sketches to a long tradition of political subversion through mockery. Fiction writer Jodi Paloni also spearheads an Action section, encouraging readers to make calls and show up to protests.

Scoundrel Time and Roar also drummed up support at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Washington, D.C. in February. Whyman and her fellow Scoundrel Time founders gathered in the lobby of the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue and read aloud from James Baldwin, Emma Lazarus, and Claudia Rankine. Meanwhile, Roar supporters wearing pink “pussy hats” handed out pink Roar-branded condoms and stickers at the bookfair. They weren’t the only ones making a statement at AWP: Split This Rock, a D.C.–based organization focused on poetry and social change, collaborated with organizations such as VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and CantoMundo to hold a candlelight vigil for freedom of expression outside the White House, during which writers such as Kazim Ali, Ross Gay, and Carolyn Forché delivered speeches about the importance of writing and art.  

Scoundrel Time plans to organize similar actions in the future, but for now it carries on that spirit of standing together and holding space, albeit online, for writers to freely speak their minds. With their new journals, both Whyman and March hope they can help writers to, as Whyman says, “hang on to our humanity and feel like [we] can gain understanding.” 

 

Sarah M. Seltzer is a writer of fiction, creative nonfiction, journalism, and ill-advised tweets. A lifelong New Yorker, she is the deputy editor of the culture website Flavorwire.com.

Protesters march on Trump Tower in New York City as part of the Writers Resist rallies in January.

(Credit: Ed Lederman)

Dear President: A Message for the Next Commander in Chief From Fifty American Poets and Writers

by

Staff

8.17.16

In a little over two months, we the people will choose the forty-fifth president of the United States. Between now and then, the nominees will present their policy proposals and debate the issues, shaping a national conversation about some awfully big and important topics. But before we get to those televised debates (the first of three is scheduled for September 26 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York) we wanted to give some of our most thoughtful and articulate citizens—poets and writers—a chance to offer their perspective. Because, as former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove remarked, “Our nation needs to learn to value its independent writers and artists as the heralds of a richly textured, inclusive national identity.”

The request was simple: Imagine you are face-to-face with the next president—whoever that may be—and, in a few sentences, write about what you hope to see addressed in the next four years. It turns out something pretty great happens when you ask writers to convey, without a lot of political grandstanding, what is most important to them. The contours of some of America’s biggest issues—education, health care, gun violence, racism, immigration, and the environment among them—start to come into sharper focus, the collective discourse rises above the rhetoric of political pundits, and the pomp and circumstance of the political process falls away, so that we are left with a discussion of real problems, real concerns, and, if not solutions, then at least some honest ideas that may inspire action of real, lasting value. 

Dear President,

“The countless complex problems facing the world require complex critical thinking. Please reinvest in public higher education systems like UC, SUNY, CUNY, and the other once-strong and accessible state systems of higher education. Restore and privilege humanities and arts education at the K–12 and higher-ed levels. Reduce the military budget and make a real commitment to social and educational infrastructure.” —Kazim Ali

“Please listen to the stories being told right now by the scientists who study, and the citizens who live, amid the catastrophic changes taking place across the planet. They are not fiction; without courageous leadership they will become fate.” —Steve Almond

“Your critics, most of them, would have called me a superpredator back then, when the memory of the pistol was heavy in my palm—so that’s not my focus. But now, unlike then, you have power, and I’m left to wonder what you will call the young men and women lost in the system, those who walked down paths they regret. Do they earn your scorn, your mercy?” —Reginald Dwayne Betts

“I would like President Clinton to know that I support her and her agenda fully, especially as it relates to education, the arts, and the environment. The single greatest problem facing our species is the erosion of the environmental conditions that allowed us to evolve and thrive and tap out messages like this one on our phones and computers. We are doomed, yes, but later rather than sooner, I hope.” —T. C. Boyle

“Once the body arrives in the world it immediately becomes fragile—fragile in that it needs nourishment, protection, education, and endless chances; bodies of color, in particular, have had these basic human rights revoked, and it continues. I call for a protection of these bodies through a reassessment of the justice system and retraining of authorities who violate the civil liberties of citizens of color through racial profiling, stop-and-frisk, and abuse; human life is at stake, and my wish is that the next four years will reflect back the beauty and not the wreckage of our existence.” —Tina Chang

 

“America has often seen itself as a beacon of democracy, but the American project has always been about a settler project of inclusion and exclusion: democracy for those imagined as real Americans, and inequality for slaves, immigrants, black and brown bodies, and those who live in places the United States has colonized or destabilized, most recently Iraq and Libya. I hope that you can see yourself not just as a standard-bearer for a global economic elite, but as a force for equality and justice for all.” —Ken Chen

“There’s so much I could ask of you—a list of demands—but first to ensure our safety as citizens. Too many lives have been lost to gun violence—mass shootings, gang related, and otherwise—and now it is more than a false dilemma, it’s a reality that can no longer be ignored.” —Nicole Dennis-Benn

“There is no present or future without immigrants; white supremacy (and all of its sequelae) is one of the gravest threats to our democracy.” —Junot Díaz

“I want an America with tougher gun laws. I want an America that nurtures and embraces diversity.” —Chitra Divakaruni

“Eight million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the oceans every year. Our government has to get involved in legislation that reduces one-use plastics, invests in alternative-packaging ideas, and dramatically decreases pollution in the oceans, or by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.” —Anthony Doerr

“If we are ever to attain our forefathers’ aspirations for ‘a more perfect union,’ educating our young—not only in the sciences, but also the arts—cannot, dare not, be neglected. If our children are unable to say what they mean, no one will know how they feel; if they cannot imagine different worlds, they are stumbling through a darkness made all the more sinister by its lack of reference points.” —Rita Dove

“I would say to the president that she should work to dismantle the global culture of corruption present at all levels of society, which prevents any meaningful change or accountability, and whose primary victims are the powerless and disenfranchised. This complicity is a symptom of larger systems of discourse and economy that exist to preserve the status quo, and I would say that in the absence of means to transform those systems outright, she should start, at the level of the law and of media, to model ways of addressing concrete problems with transparency and tenacity, showing that even at the most entrenched levels of corruption, change can be effected.” —Robert Fernandez

“The stakes are too high for you to ignore the grievances voiced by those of us who believed you when you spoke of progress and equality. We can’t afford for you to go slow.” —Angela Flournoy

“Climate change—stop dicking around. War—use only as the ultimate last resort.” —Ben Fountain

“I’d like our next president to know compassion and compromise. I’d also like her to know how thrilled I was when I received a thank-you note from her husband after I sent Chelsea a birthday card when I was fifteen.” —Carrie Fountain

“The occupation of Palestine by Israel—mass incarceration, presumption of guilt, withholding of resources, wanton destruction of human life, all underscored by the creation of physical barriers and the emotional propaganda of persecution, exclusion, mythmaking, and fear—are mirrored, one by one, in the policies of institutionalized racism in the United States. Unless we face this singular fact, and acknowledge our collective culpability as architects and sponsors of state terrorism here in our American cities, and in our foreign policy regarding Palestine (which is the bedrock of all other foreign policy), we will continue to be unable to fulfill the potential of our democracy for our people, and remain excoriated abroad for our impotence and hypocrisy.” —Ru Freeman

“Dear Madam President, our undocumented families are not silent or invisible in our hearts. May they be just as present in your actions as we continue to build this home, this country, together.” —Rigoberto González

“None of the problems of this country will be solved without things getting messy, and without your commitment to listen, truly listen, and to govern for the people who have the least in this country—black and brown women of color, undocumented women, trans and lesbian women, poor women, the people you usually wish to have behind you at a podium but rarely invite to the room where decisions are being made. Invite us in and listen and then act.” —Kaitlyn Greenidge

“President Clinton, after celebrating with a tall flute of Prosecco, please make gun reform your first order of business. In four years, I hope to live in a country where the pen is mightier than the gun (and the money that keeps it in power).” —Eleanor Henderson

“Ms. President, I want you to know that the power of having our first woman as president doesn’t escape me; I’ve been waiting for this my entire life. And I want you, as the first woman president of the United States, to place the liberation and justice of historically marginalized people at the center of your work—
terrifying, hard, necessary work. We need this more than ever.” —Tanwi Nandini Islam

“I would like the next president to know that the 2016 presidential campaign has awoken a sizable portion of this country’s electorate to the limitations of a two-party system that is beholden more to its own status quo than the interests of its constituencies; that we are more awake than ever to the corruption of politicians who claim allegiance to ‘the people,’ but whose votes and policies are purchased outright by producers of weaponry and manufacturers of economic disparity. I would like the next president to know that we will be watching and taking note of their promises to Wall Street and the military-industrial complex, that we will call out their positions on trade deals that betray American workers, their complicity with a prison-industrial complex that seeks profit from incarceration, their commitment to a justice system that frees criminals in uniform while killing people of color with impunity, and that we will organize beyond their scarecrows of fear to create a movement capable of replacing this oligarchy with the highest of this nation’s ideals: democracy.” —Tyehimba Jess

“Madam President, thank you for sparing us your opponent’s dismal and clownish stupidity, his blind and blinding hate. I’m still scared, though. I’m scared that you think beating him will be the hardest part of your job, and I’m scared of what’s happening to the environment, to our schools and water supply and our tolerance, scared of people being out of work and people being hooked on painkillers and people not being allowed to use the restroom where they feel most comfortable. I don’t give a rip if you’re honest or transparent or running a thousand different e-mail servers, but I need you to be compassionate and smart and clear-eyed, to be decent and flexible and open-minded, to be afraid with me—with all of us—and despite our fears, not least yours, I need you to be brave and resilient and, well, hopeful.” —Bret Anthony Johnston

“I’d like to talk about government subsidies for mental-health care. We tend to speak about mental health after some extreme event, like a shooting spree, but mental health is an everyday thing. So many people—especially poor people and minorities—are suffering in silent pain.” —Tayari Jones

“Make fighting bigotry a priority—bigotry of all sorts, from race to sexuality to gender to class. I feel it’s especially the responsibility of our candidates this time around, as this very election unleashed a whole new wave of intense bigotry directed at all sorts of minorities—so I feel like it is the urgent responsibility of the elected official to face this and work to increase the dialogue, education, and awareness required to heal and advance.” —Porochista Khakpour

“I watch my students invest in cultural, economic, and financial change despite their pessimism and frequent belief that we live within a system that profits from their disenfranchisement. How do we convince the next generation of thinkers that their engagement and participation in the political system matters as they watch so much of the progress facilitated by activists of the past dismantled?” —Ruth Ellen Kocher

“Madam President, please pay more attention to, support, and build up public education. Our schools are the democratizing cornerstones of our communities—and this country’s future.” —Joseph O. Legaspi

“I’d like to trust that the voice of any suffering person, regardless of category, had as much currency with you as some power broker. I’d like not to doubt you knew that suffering was of a piece with the planet’s emergency, the ongoing story of oil, water, war, animals.” —Paul Lisicky

“Your country is complex; it is hard to imagine a foreigner being able to fix it for you. Keep this in mind when you consider invading another nation.” —Karan Mahajan

“What’s really important to me is the radical reconceptualization of our broken criminal-justice system that targets young black and brown people—increasingly girls and young women—for arrest, detention, and incarceration, thereby continuing the program of relegating generations of people of color to second-class citizenry. It is clear to so many of us that the increased presence of police in daily life, alongside the militarization of police forces, is the wrong path to go down, and that we have to think progressively in our imagining of the future we’d like to create.” —Dawn Lundy Martin

“Please put climate change at the front and center of our national conversation, and follow up by funding initiatives toward developing and using sustainable energy.” —Cate Marvin

Peace is a good word for politicians to look up, understand the meaning of it, use it once in a while, learn to practice it. You are committing environmental child abuse by poisoning our food, polluting our air, and totally destroying the environment so that a few of your cronies can make a few extra billion or two while the rest of us will not survive even to serve you.” —Alejandro Murguía

“The blight on ‘American exceptionalism’ is the recurring cycle of black youth raised in communities where poverty, inadequate education, and insufficient recreational and job opportunities exclude too many of them from the promise of the American Dream. It is urgent that you fund programs now to address this shameful problem.” —Elizabeth Nunez

“Dear Madam President, help us lift up the least advantaged among us. Put your strength and determination behind education, jobs, and equality. We have benefited greatly from the moral guidance of the last administration. Please keep the spirit of ‘yes we can’ alive. God bless you.” —D. A. Powell

“What the world wants, demands, deserves, and needs from you is that you guide your leadership and base your decisions on just one principle: love. Because isn’t that the whole point to it all—love? Isn’t that why we all keep on going?” —Mira Ptacin

“Madam President, the influence of the Israel lobby is not as valuable as the lives of the many Palestinians who have been living in degradation and increasing terror under the Israeli occupation for the last half century, just as the influence of the NRA lobby is not as valuable as the lives of the many U.S. citizens who have been injured and killed due to gun violence.” —Emily Raboteau

“There should be a new cabinet post—Secretary of the Arts. For the inaugural six poets: European, Hispanic, Asian American, African American, Native American, Muslim.” —Ishmael Reed

“I want the president to know that we are tired of having our voices silenced and our needs unmet. I want the president to know that we want better gun control, higher minimum wages, recognition of women’s rights, better education, and most of all a greater sense of our shared humanity—unity, not division.” —Roxana Robinson

“President Hillary Clinton, I live in Portland, Oregon, where every day I watch our homeless camps grow in size. Homelessness is a national crisis that has barely been discussed this election season. You’ve pledged ‘to direct more federal resources to those who need them most.’ As you do so, please don’t forget about some of your most vulnerable constituents: homeless Americans. It’s an issue at the nexus of economic inequality, joblessness, rising housing costs, lack of affordable housing, health care accessibility, and systemic racism. Please make connecting all Americans to safe, stable homes and services a priority.” —Karen Russell

“Madam President, where has all the funding gone for arts in the schools? Could those kuts be the reesen we are all getin dummer?” —George Saunders

“The growing disparity in wealth in this country undermines any hope we have for achieving social justice. Changing this won’t be easy, and will require more courage, conviction, and political leadership than you have exhibited in the past.” —Dani Shapiro

“Since arts and humanities programs enrich our American lives beyond measure, connecting and inspiring people of different backgrounds and inclinations better than anything else does, it would be reasonable to support them threefold or more, without question. The fact that Bernie Sanders, a Jewish American, found it possible to be frank about the injustice and criminal oppression that Palestinian people have suffered for the past sixty-eight years suggests other politicians might be able to do this too—injustice for one side does not help the ‘other side’ and everyone knows this but does not act or speak as honestly or honorably as Sanders did.” —Naomi Shihab Nye

“I would like you to know that we do not have any more time—at all—to postpone addressing the issue of climate change. And while you’re working to ensure the survival of the planet, please remember that some of us are dying at an even faster rate from poverty, lack of health care, gun violence, police brutality, war, and twenty-seven kinds of intolerance—so please use your authority to help ensure that we live to see (and help implement) the climate-change solutions you set in motion.” —Evie Shockley

“I want the next president to shout from the housetops that violence is not a source or sign of strength but of weakness, whether inside a home or between nations. I want us to address violence at all scales, from domestic violence and gun violence to our endless, failed, one-sided, expensive foreign wars to the subtle violence against the poor and the unborn among our species, against more fragile species, and against the earth and the future that is unchecked climate change and the brutal fossil-fuel industry.” —Rebecca Solnit

“Did you know we need to find more jobs for the unemployed? Also, Palestine and Israel need to work it out.” —Tom Spanbauer

“If you can’t do everything, at least do what you say. I just wanna live in a country that knows the difference between love and hate.” —Ebony Stewart

“Our public-education system is in desperate need of resources, specifically in marginalized communities, as well as a more learner-centered, diverse curriculum emphasizing perspectives across race, gender, class, nationality, sexual orientation, ability, and the multiple intersections therein to challenge all of us to be better human beings on this planet. And, Madam President, if I can focus our last few minutes on my beautiful, complicated city: Your support of Rahm Emanuel terrifies me. Thank you for listening. Please, keep listening. To all of us. Not some. All.” —Megan Stielstra

“Free Leonard Peltier. Free Chelsea Manning.” —Justin Taylor

“No language is neutral. To speak is to claim a life—and often our own. If more Americans speak to one another, in writing, in media, at the supermarket, we might listen better. It is difficult, I think, to hate one another when we start to understand not only why and how we hurt, but also why and how we love.” —Ocean Vuong

“The greatest threats facing the United States are not terrorism and illegal immigration but rather injustice, bias, inequality, and fear. To be a great nation we must focus on criminal-justice reform; the eradication of the vestiges of slavery; education; and human and civil rights for all.” —Ayelet Waldman

“Please stop separating families through deportation; let it be understood that they did not want to be in this country to begin with (which reminds me, please stop bombing children, stop invading countries, stop sending the young and poor onto the battlefields). Please create a path toward citizenship for everyone, not just the ‘dreamers,’ because we all learn to dream from our parents.” —Javier Zamora

 

Bullets Into Bells

by

Maya Popa

12.13.17

It has been just over five years since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, during which twenty first-graders and six educators were killed. Since then, more than 150,000 Americans have lost their lives as a result of gun violence, and the public debate about guns in America—recently magnified by a mass shooting in Las Vegas in October and at a church in rural Texas in November—rages on. But a new anthology of poetry and essays aims to offer a different perspective on an issue that is so often oversimplified by the media.

Published a week before the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting and coedited by poets Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader, Bullets Into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence (Beacon Press) is a powerful call to end gun violence in the United States. The anthology includes poems by dozens of celebrated poets—including Billy Collins, Ocean Vuong, Natasha Trethewey, and Juan Felipe Herrera—paired with nonfiction responses by activists, political figures, survivors, and others affected by gun violence. The anthology’s “call and response” structure showcases the direct relationship between specific acts of gun violence and the poems that were generated as a result. In the book’s foreword, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords—who survived being shot in the head at a 2011 meeting with constituents in Arizona—and her husband, retired astronaut and Navy captain Mark Kelly, write, “Survivors, advocates, and allies can change hearts and minds—and move more people to join our fight for solutions—by telling stories about the irreparable damage that gun violence does to families and communities across the country.”

When they began compiling the book, the editors knew it would have a political purpose. “We agreed that the anthology would do more than simply collect literary responses to a political issue—it would need to be a political artifact in itself,” says Clements, for whom the anthology has a personal thrust. His wife, Abbey, worked as a second-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 and has since become an outspoken activist for gun control. Clements and his fellow editors envisioned the anthology as both a tribute to those who die by guns every year and a way to find common ground in the discussion about gun violence.

Several poets the editors invited to contribute, including Robert Hass, Tess Taylor, and Yusef Komunyakaa, chose to write new poems for the anthology. “These poems tend not to respond to specific events but are, instead, often deeply personal meditations on the poet’s relationship to guns or their individual experiences with shootings,” says Rader. He points to two poems in particular: one by Brenda Hillman about her family’s gun, and one by Bob Hicok that revisits the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, where he was a professor at the time and even had the shooter, who killed thirty-two and wounded seventeen, in one of his classes. “Both of these poems move beyond mere ‘anger’ and toward some larger notion of individual and communal ethic,” says Rader.

With more than fifty poems and fifty responses, the anthology brings together many perspectives on a complicated issue. “A big part of the impetus for the anthology was that conversations in the media about gun violence often become a loop of the same few sentiments, without the range of voices that poets were offering,” says Teague. “Christopher Soto’s ‘All the Dead Boys Look Like Me,’ for instance, written in the wake of the 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, draws together personal experience with the often fatal dangers that queer brown bodies face in our country, as well as with family connections, activism, and a call for reimagining this legacy of endangerment and death.”

In another of the anthology’s pairings, Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old boy who was shot by police in Cleveland in 2012, responds to Reginald Dwayne Betts’s poem “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving,” which opens:

 

in the backseat of my car are my own sons,
still not yet Tamir’s age, already having heard
me warn them against playing with toy pistols,
though my rhetoric is always about what I don’t
like, not what I fear, because sometimes
I think of Tamir Rice & shed tears…

 

Rice responds, “When I think of Tamir as his mother, the woman who gave birth to him, I wonder why my son had to lose his life in such a horrific way in this great place we call America…Tamir was an all-American kid with a promising and bright future…. Who will govern the government when they continue to murder American citizens?”

In another pairing, Po Kim Murray of the Newtown Action Alliance responds to a poem about the Sandy Hook shootings. Antonius Wiriadjaja, who survived being shot on the sidewalk in New York City as he walked to the subway in 2013, responds to Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poem “A Morning Shooting,” about a young man who is shot in a driveway on his way to work. “The poems themselves are exceptionally powerful, but the combinations of poem and respondent results in another order of emotional impact,” says Clements.

“Throughout the collection, the poets and respondents imagine how the lives of those killed by gun violence, and their survivors, could have been different if not for racial discrimination, homophobia, and other forms of violence that have replaced listening and supporting the lives and potentials of all our citizens,” says Teague.

The Bullets Into Bells editors hope to expand the project’s reach beyond the book. In the coming months, a number of events will be held across the country, featuring readings and panel discussions with the poets and essayists from the anthology. A related website for the project (beacon.org/bullets-into-bells-p1298.aspx) includes additional poems, statements from activists, opportunities for action, data on gun violence, interviews, and more. “One of my hopes,” says Clements, “is that this project—the book, the web content, the events around the country—will be part of a perhaps slower but more direct and more personal approach, bypassing the national media, that will encourage poets, readers of poetry, and literary audiences who might not otherwise have become involved in this movement to get more involved.”

Colum McCann echoes this hope in his introduction to the book: “The conviction behind this anthology is that we should be in the habit of hoping and speaking out in favor of that hope. It is, in the end, an optimistic book. The poems assert the possibility of language rather than bullets to open up our veins.”       

 

Maya Popa is a writer and teacher living in New York City. She is the author of the poetry chapbook The Bees Have Been Canceled (New Michigan Press, 2017). Her website is mayacpopa.com.                  

Abbey and Brian Clements (holding an orange sign) at the Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America march across the Brooklyn Bridge in May 2016.

The Radius of Arab American Writers

by

Marwa Helal

8.16.17

When poet Glenn Shaheen first started writing, he had little sense of community as an Arab American writer. He felt constrained from writing about Arab American issues or identity, and his undergraduate writing professors scoffed at “identity writing,” telling him it would be “a cheat to write like that, because you’d immediately get published.” But when fellow poet Hayan Charara introduced Shaheen to the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI), Shaheen found a community that supported and empowered his artistic freedom. “RAWI helped me be proud of my Arab heritage. Knowing there was a thriving community of Arab writers of all backgrounds and genres made me realize I was actually a part of that community,” says Shaheen. “I feel free to write about anything now after meeting so many other Arab writers—some working on science fiction novels or ecopoetry or experimental dramatic works. It helped me see that there isn’t a specific mold of an Arab American writer that I should aspire to or avoid.”

Shaheen is not the only writer who has found community through RAWI, a nonprofit organization that for the past twenty-five years has worked to support and disseminate creative and scholarly writing by Arab Americans. RAWI—a word that means storyteller in Arabic—was first established in 1992 by journalist and anthropologist Barbara Nimri Aziz as a seven-person group of writers that met in Washington, D.C. It has since grown into a thriving community of nearly 125 writers, artists, and journalists all over the world, from the United States to the United Arab Emirates. Members include literary heavyweights like Pulitzer Prize finalist Laila Lalami, National Book Award finalist Rabih Alameddine, poet and translator Fady Joudah, and poet Naomi Shihab Nye. The organization now hosts workshops and a biennial conference that features panels, readings, and workshops for Arab American writers. The last conference, which focused on a range of topics including craft, publishing, and the effects of Islamophobia, was held in Minneapolis in June 2016 and cosponsored by Mizna, a nonprofit that promotes Arab American culture. The next conference will take place in Houston, Texas, in June 2018. In the meantime, RAWI has also launched In Solidarity, a series of daylong workshops and craft talks for people of color, members of marginalized communities, and allies in various cities throughout the United States. The series was spearheaded by fiction writer Susan Muaddi Darraj, and the first workshop, which took place in March in Washington, D.C., gave writers space to talk about identity, publishing, and being a writer in the margins. The second was held in San Francisco in April, and more are in the works around the country. “We hope these workshops foster communication and a feeling of solidarity among various communities,” says Darraj. “At least one writers circle has been formed as an outcome of these daylong workshops.”

In the coming year RAWI will be doing even more. In March the organization began advocating for the first-ever Arab American caucus, to be held at the next Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Tampa, and is currently planning a twenty-fifth-anniversary celebration. In October the University of Arkansas Press will publish Jess Rizkallah’s poetry collection the magic my body becomes, winner of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize, a new award given for a first or second book of poetry by a poet of Arab heritage and cosponsered by RAWI. “Leading RAWI has always been rewarding and challenging, but it is especially so this year,” says executive director Randa Jarrar. “I’m dazzled by our community’s literary output—we have so many excellent books out this year and next, and on and on.”

RAWI’s growth hasn’t been without some pains. “The challenge is often fund-raising, and belonging to a nation that often doesn’t celebrate our work alongside us, but picks and tokenizes, or silences,” Jarrar says. Both before and after 9/11, Arab American writers have had to balance the desire to be read and recognized for the quality of their work with being hyper-visible spokespeople for their homelands while struggling to live and work amid ongoing hostility toward Arab people. With the president’s recent ban on travelers from several Arab-majority countries, Arab Americans face increased challenges. “More than ever,” Jarrar says, “I hope that RAWI can be a solace and provide its members and the Arab American literary community support and a sense of belonging and connection and resistance.”

For many writers, RAWI has done just that. “It has shown me that we exist,” says Palestinian American poet Tariq Luthun. “I think, like any population, we are at least vaguely aware of the fact that we aren’t the only ones of our kind. But seeing and experiencing this community firsthand is so vital to one’s resolve in continuing to do this work.” Emerging poet Kamelya Omayma Youssef agrees. For her, RAWI provided the foundation she needed as a writer. “Imagining that I can eventually read to a room full of people and be heard without the threat of reductive thinking or fetishization or demonization should not be as radical as it is for me today,” she says. “But it is totally radical. RAWI is that room.”        

 

Marwa Helal is a poet and journalist who lives and teaches in Brooklyn, New York. She is the winner of BOMB Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Contest and the author of the poetry collection Invasive species, forthcoming from Nightboat Books in 2019. Her website is marshelal.com.        

Hayan Charara addresses attendees at the 2016 RAWI conference in Minneapolis.  (Credit: Makeen Osman)

Muslim Americans Take the Mic

by

Marwa Helal

12.14.16

On a recent trip to New Orleans, my friend and I went to a bar in the neighborhood known as Algiers. We met a local man there, who hung out with us for the rest of the evening. About three hours into our conversation, I casually mentioned that my last name means “crescent moon.” He backed away from the table with a fearful gesture and said, “Oh, so you’re definitely Muslim.” This is the M-word in action, and this is how it functions in everyday social situations. It can suddenly change the mood, discontinue or alter conversations. PEN America’s new initiative, “The M Word: Muslim Americans Take the Mic,” aims to address this social effect head-on through a series of events and stories that will give voice to some of the most powerful and innovative writers in the Muslim community. The two-year initiative, which launched last fall and is funded by a $225,000 grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges Program, seeks to advance the conversation about the challenges of self-identification and self-expression that Muslim Americans face in today’s social and political climate.

An organization devoted to advancing literature and protecting free expression at home and abroad, PEN America has highlighted Muslim writers by publishing their work on its website, pen.org, and by inviting Muslim writers to speak at the annual PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, where the organization is based. The M Word series continues this work by giving a more dedicated platform to the Muslim community. “We are for the first time focusing on the richness and diversity of Muslim American writers but also their deep contributions to the American literary canon and landscape,” says Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, the deputy director of public programs at PEN America.

For centuries, Muslim Americans have played a vital role in building America’s varied and inspiring cultural landscape. But their voices have often been marginalized, a trend that has accelerated in today’s political climate, as misinformation and the normalization of hate speech have given rise to divisive rhetoric and rampant Islamophobia. “PEN America wanted to counter this trend by giving Muslim American creators the mic, so to speak, to tell their stories, their way, and to challenge prevailing narrow representations of Muslims in popular media,” Shariyf says.

The series kicked off in New York City this past September with an event called “The M Word: Muslim-American Comedians on the Right to Joke,” which featured comedy sets and a conversation with journalist and award-winning playwright Wajahat Ali, and comedians Negin Farsad, Mo Amer, Hasan Minhaj of The Daily Show, and Phoebe Robinson of 2 Dope Queens. PEN plans to host similar events in Boston; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and other cities across the country. The next event, part of the Muslim Protagonist Symposium hosted by the Muslim Students Association at Columbia University, will be held in late February in New York City and will focus on Muslim American fiction writers.

To expand the program’s reach, PEN will also share original stories by Muslim American writers online. “We are inviting audience members, online followers, panelists, and others to share their personal experiences. The stories we collect will become part of the PEN American Center Digital Archive of Free Expression and may also appear on pen.org, Facebook, or other platforms,” Shariyf says. Videos of the M Word events are also posted online and sometimes live-streamed.

To help shape the series, PEN is collaborating with prominent organizations and individuals within the Muslim writing community. PEN cohosted an event in September at the Brooklyn Book Festival with Akashic Books and the Muslim Writers Collective, a volunteer-run group that organizes monthly open mics for Muslim writers and artists (the collective has active chapters in several cities, including Seattle; Boston; Houston, Texas; and Ann Arbor, Michigan). PEN has also solicited several advisers, including Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Ayad Akhtar; Sana Amanat, creator of the comic-book series Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan); novelist Zia Haider Rahman; religious scholar and media commentator Reza Aslan; and Ali, who moderated the September event. “Everyone talks about Muslims, but no one is really interested in talking to them or having them emerge as protagonists in their own narrative,” Ali says. “The M Word is not a politically correct, feel-good, liberal proselytizing series. It examines, dissects, uncovers and celebrates the diverse experiences that are too often silenced, stereotyped, or excised from the final draft.”The M Word

When asked what the M-word means to him, Ali explains, “Muslim is an identity, a signifier that means an individual in some way identifies with a religion that acknowledges the Allah as the Creator and the Prophet Muhammad as his messenger. It’s one of my chosen identity markers that denotes my spiritual path and religious communities. On 9/11, I was a twenty-year-old senior at UC Berkeley. Since that day, I have become an accidental representative of this word and the 1.7 billion people it allegedly represents. I became us and them. My career has been spent navigating the alleged divides, building this bridge and inviting others to cross it.”

Ali remains hopeful. “Change takes time and effort, it never comes without some friction. I hope the M Word helps cast a spotlight on these talented American Muslims who rarely get their voices heard in front of mainstream, privileged audiences. It’s education, entertainment, and an opportunity to bridge the divides.”

Marwa Helal is the winner of BOMB Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Prize. She lives in New York City and received her MFA from the New School. Follow her on Twitter, @marwahelal.

Singapore Unbound

by

Melynda Fuller

2.15.17

Every month in New York City, thirty to forty writers and literature enthusiasts gather at the home of a fellow writer for a potluck and reading of American, international, and Singaporean literature. Established in 2014 by Singaporean writer Jee Leong Koh, these salons, called the Second Saturday Reading Series, have featured dozens of emerging and established writers from around the world and allowed Singaporean and non-Singaporean writers alike to connect over literature. Koh now hopes to expand on that cultural exchange with his new project, Singapore Unbound, which will celebrate and raise awareness about Singaporean literary culture. “We want to expand the idea of who is Singaporean,” says Koh. “You’re not Singaporean just because you’re a citizen. You’re still Singaporean if you move away, or you could be a guest worker in the country. We want to encompass both groups.” 

Launched in February, Singapore Unbound serves as the umbrella organization for the Second Saturday Reading Series and the biennial Singapore Literature Festival, which was created in 2014 by Koh and writer Paul Rozario-Falcone and was last held in New York City in Fall 2016. Under the same umbrella, indie poetry publisher Bench Press will join forces with the blog Singapore Poetry, which features cross-cultural book reviews (Americans review Singaporean books, and Singaporeans review American books). Koh hopes that by aligning these projects under one organization, he can provide Singaporean writers with a “prominent and independent platform for open and free expression of their views.” 

That platform is important to protecting and advancing the literary culture of a country that has not always supported free speech. While Singapore boasts a rich stew of cultures with four official languages—Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and English—and a burgeoning indie literature landscape that showcases a diversity of cultures and ideas, literature is still restricted by the government. Although the state grants large sums of money to publishers and writers, giving them greater freedom to take risks on young writers in particular, the money comes with stipulations: The work cannot undermine governmental authority and must not advocate for what the state deems “objectionable lifestyles”—namely, those of LGBTQIA writers. In response, Singapore-based publishers like Ethos, Epigram, Landmark, and Math Paper Press have been pushing censorship boundaries for the past few years, and Koh himself doesn’t accept government funds. Kenny Leck, owner of the popular Tiong Bahru–based bookstore BooksActually, says, “At the bookstore, and with our publishing arm, Math Paper Press, we sell the titles and publish the content that most compels us. In that way, our government, the state, has no say in what we choose to do.” 

Singapore Unbound is committed not only to freedom of expression, but also to the idea that cross-cultural exchange leads to a healthier literary culture. Alfian Sa’at, who participated in the 2016 literature festival, where a portion of his five-hour epic play Hotel was performed in the United States for the first time, notes the positive impact of the kind of exchange Singapore Unbound fosters. “Having links with writers from other countries helps us learn from one another’s experiences,” he says. “For a long time I think we’ve looked toward a place like the United States for guidance on issues such as freedom of expression, how institutional solidarity in the form of something like the PEN American Center can aid writers who struggle with censorship and persecution.” Jeremy Tiang, a Singaporean writer living in New York City, agrees. At the 2014 festival Tiang worked with the political arts collective Kristiania to organize a panel of two Singaporean poets alongside writers in exile from Indonesia and Nigeria. “I think the best conversations happen when people from different contexts are able to exchange ideas in this way,” says Tiang.

With the introduction of Singapore Unbound, Koh plans to further those conversations. He hopes to start a scholarship program that will pay for Singaporean writers to spend two weeks in New York during the summer to experience the culture of the city and collaborate with local writers. This past fall Koh also created a fellowship program designed to bring more voices to the organization, help it reach a wider audience, and build its online presence. “With Singapore Unbound we want to bring outstanding literature to a wide audience,” says Koh, “and by doing so liberalize our politics and sentiments.”

 

Melynda Fuller is a New York City–based writer and editor. She received her MFA from the New School and is at work on a collection of essays. Her website is melyndafuller.com. Find her on Twitter, @MGrace_Fuller

Correction
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the 2016 Singapore Literature Festival included both a performance of Alfian Sa’at’s play Hotel in English and a panel organized by Jeremy Tiang. Alfian Sa’at’s play is actually multilingual and Jeremy Tiang organized a panel at the 2014 festival, not the 2016 festival.

Jee Leong Koh speaks at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. 

Muslim Americans Take the Mic

by

Marwa Helal

12.14.16

On a recent trip to New Orleans, my friend and I went to a bar in the neighborhood known as Algiers. We met a local man there, who hung out with us for the rest of the evening. About three hours into our conversation, I casually mentioned that my last name means “crescent moon.” He backed away from the table with a fearful gesture and said, “Oh, so you’re definitely Muslim.” This is the M-word in action, and this is how it functions in everyday social situations. It can suddenly change the mood, discontinue or alter conversations. PEN America’s new initiative, “The M Word: Muslim Americans Take the Mic,” aims to address this social effect head-on through a series of events and stories that will give voice to some of the most powerful and innovative writers in the Muslim community. The two-year initiative, which launched last fall and is funded by a $225,000 grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges Program, seeks to advance the conversation about the challenges of self-identification and self-expression that Muslim Americans face in today’s social and political climate.

An organization devoted to advancing literature and protecting free expression at home and abroad, PEN America has highlighted Muslim writers by publishing their work on its website, pen.org, and by inviting Muslim writers to speak at the annual PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, where the organization is based. The M Word series continues this work by giving a more dedicated platform to the Muslim community. “We are for the first time focusing on the richness and diversity of Muslim American writers but also their deep contributions to the American literary canon and landscape,” says Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, the deputy director of public programs at PEN America.

For centuries, Muslim Americans have played a vital role in building America’s varied and inspiring cultural landscape. But their voices have often been marginalized, a trend that has accelerated in today’s political climate, as misinformation and the normalization of hate speech have given rise to divisive rhetoric and rampant Islamophobia. “PEN America wanted to counter this trend by giving Muslim American creators the mic, so to speak, to tell their stories, their way, and to challenge prevailing narrow representations of Muslims in popular media,” Shariyf says.

The series kicked off in New York City this past September with an event called “The M Word: Muslim-American Comedians on the Right to Joke,” which featured comedy sets and a conversation with journalist and award-winning playwright Wajahat Ali, and comedians Negin Farsad, Mo Amer, Hasan Minhaj of The Daily Show, and Phoebe Robinson of 2 Dope Queens. PEN plans to host similar events in Boston; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and other cities across the country. The next event, part of the Muslim Protagonist Symposium hosted by the Muslim Students Association at Columbia University, will be held in late February in New York City and will focus on Muslim American fiction writers.

To expand the program’s reach, PEN will also share original stories by Muslim American writers online. “We are inviting audience members, online followers, panelists, and others to share their personal experiences. The stories we collect will become part of the PEN American Center Digital Archive of Free Expression and may also appear on pen.org, Facebook, or other platforms,” Shariyf says. Videos of the M Word events are also posted online and sometimes live-streamed.

To help shape the series, PEN is collaborating with prominent organizations and individuals within the Muslim writing community. PEN cohosted an event in September at the Brooklyn Book Festival with Akashic Books and the Muslim Writers Collective, a volunteer-run group that organizes monthly open mics for Muslim writers and artists (the collective has active chapters in several cities, including Seattle; Boston; Houston, Texas; and Ann Arbor, Michigan). PEN has also solicited several advisers, including Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Ayad Akhtar; Sana Amanat, creator of the comic-book series Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan); novelist Zia Haider Rahman; religious scholar and media commentator Reza Aslan; and Ali, who moderated the September event. “Everyone talks about Muslims, but no one is really interested in talking to them or having them emerge as protagonists in their own narrative,” Ali says. “The M Word is not a politically correct, feel-good, liberal proselytizing series. It examines, dissects, uncovers and celebrates the diverse experiences that are too often silenced, stereotyped, or excised from the final draft.”The M Word

When asked what the M-word means to him, Ali explains, “Muslim is an identity, a signifier that means an individual in some way identifies with a religion that acknowledges the Allah as the Creator and the Prophet Muhammad as his messenger. It’s one of my chosen identity markers that denotes my spiritual path and religious communities. On 9/11, I was a twenty-year-old senior at UC Berkeley. Since that day, I have become an accidental representative of this word and the 1.7 billion people it allegedly represents. I became us and them. My career has been spent navigating the alleged divides, building this bridge and inviting others to cross it.”

Ali remains hopeful. “Change takes time and effort, it never comes without some friction. I hope the M Word helps cast a spotlight on these talented American Muslims who rarely get their voices heard in front of mainstream, privileged audiences. It’s education, entertainment, and an opportunity to bridge the divides.”

Marwa Helal is the winner of BOMB Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Prize. She lives in New York City and received her MFA from the New School. Follow her on Twitter, @marwahelal.

Making Connections Through Books

by

Jonathan Vatner

12.13.17

Goodreads, the social networking website and app for readers, celebrated its tenth anniversary in September. With sixty-five million users and sixty-nine million book reviews, it is among the hundred most visited websites in the United States. Owned by Amazon and headquartered in San Francisco, the company is not just a platform to catalogue, rate, and review books, it’s also a promotional force in the publishing industry—one utilized by the Big Five publishers, independent presses, and authors alike.

In 2007 journalist Elizabeth Khuri and software engineer Otis Chandler, who were married the following year, created Goodreads to answer two needs book lovers often face: how to decide what to read and how to keep track of what you’ve already read. Social networking was in its infancy—Facebook had just hit fifty million users—and the couple wanted to bring the social aspect of reading, recommending, and discussing books to the Internet. “Most readers find the amount of books being published overwhelming,” says Khuri. “And there is something deeply satisfying about being able to track the books you’ve read.”

A teeming community of book bloggers and critics quickly latched on to the platform. Chandler says that publishing “the best reviews on the Internet” helped secure its success. Khuri adds that the reviews published on Goodreads are more personal than those of traditional book-review outlets, which enhances the site’s appeal. “Goodreads users are writing for their friends and for the community, so the reviews feel more authentic.”

Goodreads offers numerous tools for cataloguing and discussing books. As with Facebook and other social-networking sites, readers can set up a profile and connect with other book enthusiasts. They can create and label “shelves” to keep track of what they’ve read, what they want to read, and their favorite books; they can rate books, write reviews, and comment on other readers’ reviews. They can also join any of the thousands of public and private discussion groups and book clubs—or create their own. Users can even ask authors questions and post their own writing. In 2011 the Goodreads team introduced a book-recommendation engine to the platform, which delivers informed suggestions to users for further reading based on the books they’ve read and rated. Chandler notes that three to five books in a given subject area enables the algorithm to make smart picks—often a mix of best-sellers and lesser-known surprises.

In 2013 Amazon purchased Goodreads for an undisclosed sum, allowing Goodreads to bolster its team (now at 130 employees) and implant Goodreads reviews and recommendations into the Kindle reading experience. Users can also share Kindle notes and highlights with friends on Goodreads, to facilitate deeper discussion. “We’re building magical experiences for the Kindle,” Chandler says, before adding, “We’re still full-guns-ahead on Goodreads the site.” Though Goodreads makes it easiest to buy books on Amazon, a drop-down menu lists other online options such as Barnes & Noble and Better World Books, as well as links to WorldCat, a centralized library catalogue.

While Goodreads started out as a useful tool for readers, it has also become an important promotional platform for authors and publishers. Considering that publicity departments have been scaled back in recent years, social networking has played a growing role in the success of many books and authors, whether traditionally or self-published. “Online discovery has become the biggest challenge for authors and publishers,” says Chandler. “How do you stand out online with all the self-publishing and digital publishing? Goodreads sits at the intersection of word of mouth and online publicity.”

Writers Paulo Coelho, Neil Gaiman, Kathryn Stockett, and Roxane Gay have long used the site. Chandler and Khuri were humbled when John Ashbery joined Goodreads a few months after the site launched. Novelist Celeste Ng joined Goodreads in its early stages to keep track of what she’d read. When she published her 2014 debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, she created an official author page, which contains a bio, a list of books she has written or contributed to, quotes from her writing, discussion topics, and her reviews of other books. Ng also answers reader questions and participates in interviews on the site. But she warns against responding to reader reviews, good or bad: “For the author to be listening in can dampen the conversation,” she says.

Everything I Never Told You resonated with readers on the site and was nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award, so Ng’s publisher, Penguin Press, embraced the site in its promotional campaign for her 2017 follow-up, Little Fires Everywhere. The publicity team raffled off galleys to Goodreads users, mailed them to influential reviewers on the site who had loved the first book, and shipped a box to the Goodreads office. When the book hit stores, Penguin paid for an e-mail with a note from the author to be sent to Ng’s fans and placed targeted ads on the Goodreads home page. Ng came in at number three on a BuzzFeed list entitled “21 Books Goodreads Users Are Damn Excited to Read This Fall,” and Goodreads featured an interview with Ng in its e-newsletter in the lead-up to her new novel’s publication. After each of these efforts, more users added the book to their “want to read” shelf—which often converts to sales.

Ng’s second novel debuted in September at number seven on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list. “It’s safe to say that this community helped make Little Fires Everywhere such a big success,” says Matt Boyd, the associate publisher and marketing director of Penguin Press. “I think the site has helped people discover the book,” Ng says. “My sense is that it’s an amplified version of friends recommending books to other friends.”     

 

Jonathan Vatner is a fiction writer in Brooklyn, New York. His novel, The Chelmsford Arms, is forthcoming from Thomas Dunne Books in Fall 2018.          

Otis Chandler and Elizabeth Khuri, founders of Goodreads.

(Credit: Nick Walker)

Squirl App Maps Literary Hot Spots

by

Rachael Hanel

2.10.16

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road has inspired countless works of literature and art, but now, thanks to two literary-minded entrepreneurs, the iconic novel has also inspired an app. “I was reading On the Road, sitting there with my laptop next to me, book at my side, looking up all the places Kerouac mentioned,” says Jef Van der Avoort, cofounder of the new literary search-and-discovery app Squirl. “I told my business partner, Serie Wolfe, and she said she had the same experience.”

The pair’s literary curiosity sparked the idea for Squirl, which allows users to find nearby literary locations wherever they are. The app pins locations on a map that correspond to scenes in books. There’s a pin for the University of Texas in Austin campus, which is featured in Elizabeth Crook’s novel Monday, Monday. There’s a pin for South Park in Billings, Montana, which appears in Carrie La Seur’s novel, The Home Place. And there’s a pin for the Brooklyn Bridge, which plays a part in Catherine Lacey’s debut novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing. Each pin features a relevant passage from the book, as well as links to the author’s profile and a summary of the book that also includes links to booksellers.

Squirl works by first inviting authors to post locations from their books. “We developed the app because we think too many great books remain undiscovered,” Van der Avoort says, noting that the app is geared mostly toward independent and emerging authors who need help getting the word out about their books. “If you’re a smaller indie author, you can tell your friends, then friends of friends—but what’s the next step? It levels the playing field. Whether you have a marketing budget or not, it’s the same for everyone.” Writers then set up an author profile, on which readers can find out more about their work. Readers can search locations for a specific book, or they can search by locale to discover what literary places might exist in that area—and in doing so also find out about new books. Users can also search by author, from self-published writers to Arthur Conan Doyle, in order to find out where the characters in that author’s books have been and the places that have inspired their works.

Van der Avoort and his team began developing the app in late 2014. They launched the brand, complete with people dressed in squirrel costumes, at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, in March 2015. The app, which is free for readers and authors, went live later that year; by the end of January it included more than five hundred authors and a thousand  locations worldwide. The project has so far been independently funded, but Van der Avoort is looking for external support to develop new features. In the future, he hopes readers will be able to create their own maps of favorite literary locations and that authors will be able to create virtual journeys for their characters that readers can follow.

For now, Van der Avoort sees Squirl as a tool to enhance the reading experience and connect readers with authors they might not otherwise discover. “My personal goal would be to one day see a book that was discovered through our app featured on the New York Times best-seller list,” Van der Avoort says. “That would be success.”

Rachael Hanel is the author of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

 

 

Catapult Launches More Than Books

by

Jonathan Vatner

10.14.15

Considering the number of steps it takes for writers to turn their work into a published book, it’s no wonder that the literary world is partitioned into so many components: workshops for writers to hone their craft, literary magazines for emerging writers to share their first pieces, and both indie and mainstream presses for new and established authors to publish their books. Catapult, a new literary venture launched in September and led by a team of industry veterans—with significant financial backing—offers all of the above.

“Catapult conceptually mirrors the ecosystem in which writers and creatives exist right now,” says Andy Hunter, Catapult’s publisher and the cofounder of the popular website and digital publisher Electric Literature. The new operation, headquartered in New York City with a satellite office in Portland, Oregon, evolved out of the independent press Black Balloon Publishing, which was established in 2010 by Elizabeth Koch and Leigh Newman. Koch—Catapult CEO and daughter of billionaire conservative industrialist Charles Koch—provided the seed funding for the company, which is operating on a budget in the high six figures. “Since the inception of Black Balloon, part of the vision was always to create a mechanism for writers to find one another, support one another, and share their work,” says Koch. “Both Catapult and Black Balloon sprang from a deep-seated belief that a well-told story can be an accidental training ground for empathy, for expanding our minds and developing personally.”

Koch enlisted Hunter, who then recruited industry veteran Pat Strachan to take the role of editor in chief. Strachan has worked as an editor at the New Yorker; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; and Little, Brown, and is known for acquiring Marilynne Robinson’s debut novel, Housekeeping, as well as books by Tom Wolfe, Lydia Davis, and Seamus Heaney. Meanwhile, Newman has been named the company’s editor-at-large.

Catapult’s editorial focus will be broader than that of Black Balloon (which will continue to publish more experimental books as an imprint of Catapult), with twelve titles published in both print and e-book format each year. Strachan says Catapult is seeking “American and international fiction and narrative nonfiction that is alive, insightful, illuminating, stirring, and surprising by way of unique voices—whether emerging or established—who honor the craft of writing.” The press will open its doors to unagented submissions every April and October, and released its first titles this fall: Padgett Powell’s short story collection Cries for Help, Various, in September; and Gavin McCrea’s debut novel, Mrs. Engels, in October.

The company’s website (catapult.co), meanwhile, publishes original short fiction and nonfiction that complements the press’s editorial focus. Web editor in chief Yuka Igarashi and associate web editor Mensah Demary say they are more concerned with a compelling story than genre distinctions. “We’re thinking about stories very widely,” says Igarashi, the former managing editor of Granta. “Hopefully that includes graphic pieces and stories told in multimedia.” Catapult also publishes pieces with original art by its in-house illustrator, Tallulah Pomeroy; recent works have included Nao-cola Yamazaki’s story in translation about amoebas, “False Geneology,” and Joy Williams’s story about a daughter visiting a nursing home, “Cats and Dogs.” Submissions for the website are open year-round, and contributors are paid for their work.

The Catapult website also hosts a Community section, which allows writers to self-publish stories and comment on one another’s work. Readers can promote pieces they like, and the web editors will choose their favorite pieces, which will then be published on the curated site; those writers selected will be compensated for their work. With this type of community engagement, Hunter hopes the site will eventually attract a million unique visitors a month (by comparison, Electric Literature attracts three million unique visitors a year)—an audience that will help build and sustain a readership for Catapult’s books.

In addition to its publishing platforms, Catapult offers a robust series of writing classes in New York City. The program offers six-week workshops (limited to six students each), as well as daylong publishing and writing boot camps, taught by both established and emerging writers such as Mary Gaitskill and Julia Pierpont. While the Catapult team doesn’t have plans to host courses outside of New York City, it will offer online courses starting in 2016.

With such a comprehensive array of publishing and educational efforts, Hunter believes the new endeavor could eventually become its own publishing ecosystem. In other words, beginning writers might take a Catapult class to learn craft and find readers, then publish a piece on the community site, and then be chosen for the curated site. And finally, Hunter hopes, some Catapult writers might even publish a book through the press. “Nothing that we do hasn’t been done before,” Hunter says, “but we’re the only ones who are doing all of it together in exactly this way.” Koch agrees. “This multiarmed structure—that’s our Catapult. It’s our flywheel, generating its own growth and momentum as it blurs traditional boundaries—between student and teacher, established author and up-and-comer, publisher and audience.”                 

Jonathan Vatner is a fiction writer in Brooklyn, New York. He is the staff writer for Hue, the magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Correction
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that many staff members of Black Balloon Publishing have joined the Catapult staff. No former Black Balloon staff members currently work at Catapult.

Searching Indie Bookstore Shelves

by

Rachael Hanel

8.19.15

When looking to buy a particular book, one has a couple of options: Either go online, punch in a few keystrokes, click a couple of links, and a book will be immediately on its way; or call several bookstores, track down a copy (or wait for it to arrive in stock), and then walk, drive, or take a train to the shop. The first option is quick and easy; the second is time-consuming and inefficient, but supports more local booksellers—an increasingly important act in the age of Amazon, the company whose business model has made it difficult for many independent bookstores to compete.

Ben Purkert, a poet who lives in New York City, grappled with this dilemma. Like many readers, he wants to support his local independents and enjoys the experience of browsing through a physical store, but in the end he wants to know whether a specific book is on the shelves before he makes the trip. Purkert grew frustrated, however, with calling individual stores to confirm books were in stock. “I thought that maybe there were other people getting frustrated in the same way I was,” he says. In response, he founded CityShelf (www.cityshelf.com), a new digital tool that allows users to search the inventories of local bookstores on their mobile devices. A user can simply enter the title of a book, and CityShelf offers a list of local bookstores that carry the title, including the book’s price and in-store availability as well as each store’s location and phone number. Launched last December as a mobile site, CityShelf initially only covered seven bookstores in New York City. This summer, however, Purkert and the CityShelf team rolled out a new app and desktop site that covers stores in New York City as well as in five new locations: Boston; Chicago; Minneapolis; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle.

Purkert describes CityShelf as a “passion project.” He and his partners—technologist Eric Weinstein, designer Liz Oh, and product manager Javier Lopez—created the site in their spare time with no funding. Once they built the platform, they approached bookstores and included those with a searchable inventory on the site. In the few months since the mobile site’s launch, Purkert reports that more than a thousand people have used CityShelf, with about 50 percent of the site’s traffic representing returning users. Ultimately, Purkert would like to see the number of users grow exponentially, and he hopes to add more cities to the site and more developers to the team.

As CityShelf continues to expand, Purkert believes the platform will complement what he sees as a resurgence in indie bookstores and will encourage more readers to choose local brick-and-mortar shops over the convenience of Amazon. “A lot [of bookstores] are not just surviving, but thriving. What that suggests to me is that people are buying local. People love talking to booksellers, they love browsing, and they love getting suggested picks,” he says. “You can buy lightbulbs and diapers online, but a paperback is a bit more sacred.”

Rachael Hanel is the author of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, published in 2013 by the University of Minnesota Press.

Whitman, Alabama

by

Maya C. Popa

6.14.17

Filmmaker Jennifer Crandall first visited Alabama in 2013 on a short-term assignment for Alabama Media Group, a digital media company that produces television and video programming and publishes three of the most prominent newspapers in the state. Though she was living in Amsterdam at the time, Crandall was so inspired by Alabama that she moved to Birmingham, became the company’s first artist-in-residence, and began developing a documentary project that would showcase the state’s citizens. But rather than use a traditional interview format, Crandall decided to center her project around Walt Whitman’s iconic 1855 poem “Song of Myself” for its celebration of American identity. She has since spent the past two years traveling throughout Alabama, filming people reading from the poem. The resulting series, Whitman, Alabama, captures the spirit of the state and its people while illustrating the many themes of the poem—race, religion, politics, sexuality, and immigration—that the nation continues to wrestle with today. 

The first installment in the series featured ninety-seven-year-old Virginia Mae Schmitt, who has since died, reciting the poem’s famous opening lines. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” reads Schmitt from an armchair in her living room in Birmingham. “And what I assume you shall assume.” Since that initial shoot, Crandall, with the support of Alabama Media Group and the help of fellow filmmakers Bob Miller and Pierre Kattar, has filmed around forty of the fifty-two planned films; she posts a new video to the project website (www.whitmanalabama.com) each week. The project features a diverse group of Alabamians, including Bob Tedrow, a concertina maker in Birmingham; Mariam Jalloh, a fourteen-year-old immigrant from Guinea living in Birmingham; and Demetrius, Frederick, Patricia, and Tammy—all inmates at prisons in Montgomery. 

Acquaintances and friends introduced Crandall to several of the project’s readers, but she approached many people at random too. Crandall was surprised by how readily Alabamians agreed to being filmed. Each subject is asked to read from one of the poem’s fifty-two verses. “No matter what way we went about it, people just said yes,” says Crandall, who notes that the project is not about making the audience into Whitman experts. “Most people have heard of Whitman, from Alabama to anyplace else I’ve been, but they are not really conversant in his work. Fundamentally, it’s a project about getting Americans more conversant about who we are as Americans.” 

Crandall strives to make the videos intimate reflections of the subjects and to film them in environments where they can be fully themselves: a living room, for instance, a front porch, or the woods. Each video juxtaposes candid moments alongside the recitation. A group of teenagers skateboard, dance, beatbox, and tease one another in a vacant lot while taking turns reading verse 21. One participant, Beth Spivey, recounts getting into her car in the middle of the night to chase a vandal down the road before reading the opening lines of verse 34.

Crandall embraces spontaneity in her process. She filmed verse 43 by driving along Route 43 and seeing whom she might encounter. While passing through the small city of Union Springs, she met Anthony Stewart, who was sitting under a tree. When she asked him to read a portion of the poem, he explained that he has a hard time reading. In the video, Crandall can be heard feeding Stewart the lines from behind a tree. The result is moving: Stewart repeats complex language with composure, lines Crandall herself stumbles over. “I’m not a good reader, but I’m a good singer,” Stewart says. The scene closes with Stewart singing as a thunderstorm breaks over Union Springs. “That is the stuff I live for,” says Crandall. “Each of these verses has its own fingerprint, which has to do with the people behind the camera, in front of the camera, and the Whitman verse chosen. This project is 51 percent serendipity, 49 percent planning. It’s a gamble, but part of what we do is in the spirit of the moment. We work with what people give us. Everyone is a coauthor in that they feel some sense of ownership.”

In the opening verse of “Song of Myself,” Whitman proclaims, “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” This sentiment lives at the heart of Crandall’s series, celebrating the disparate lives of individuals while emphasizing our unity as a nation. “Whitman wrote the poem at a pretty divided time,” Crandall says. “He did a lot of work to help us empathetically understand who we could be and didn’t restrain himself to the time and place he was from. He offered us guidelines for how to think of ourselves as Americans. We are inextricably linked to one another and no one particular thing. Today we’re struggling with that.” 

The irony of using the words of Whitman, a Northerner, to showcase the South does not escape Crandall. “Bringing this poem to life by Southerners was an attempt to remind us that if you’re a Northerner, you’re also a Southerner. We are part of each other.”  

Maya C. Popa is a writer and teacher based in New York City. She is the author of the poetry chapbook The Bees Have Been Canceled (New Michigan Press, 2017). Her website is www.mayacpopa.com.

Bob Tedrow, a concertina maker in Birmingham, Alabama, plays the banjo as part of his reading of verse 7 of “Song of Myself” for the Whitman, Alabama project. 

The Shakespeare Sonnet Project

by

Maya C. Popa

10.12.16

In 2013 actor and director Ross Williams, founder of the nonprofit New York Shakespeare Exchange, set out to film all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets, each performed by a different actor in a New York City location. After raising nearly $50,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, filming began. The original deadline was Shakespeare’s 450th birthday (April 23, 2014), but the project’s aim—to merge the literary and visual arts, and bring the poetry of William Shakespeare to the poetry of New York City—quickly proved more ambitious than expected. 

As Williams and his team—made up of producers, a copy writer, and text coaches—began to film the sonnets, it became clear that the project transcended a mere collection of recitations. Each video became an artistic object in its own right. “This project is unlike any I have seen before,” says Mark Karafin, who directed Sonnet 108, which won runner-up in the annual Shakespeare Short Film Competition in 2015. “I read Sonnet 108 and it spoke to me immediately.” Filmed at the John T. Brush Stairway in Harlem, where the Polo Grounds, the original New York Giants baseball stadium, once stood, the sonnet explores “the first conceit of love, and its agelessness.” “I felt strongly about this location,” says Karafin. “It had substance and relevance to New York. There was history here.” Billy Magnussen, an actor who earned a Tony nomination for the Broadway production Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, stars in the film, and recites the sonnet in a voice-over. “My favorite part of this project was the opportunity to collaborate with such talented and inspiring artists in every department,” says Karafin.

Each of the project’s short films, released online and through a mobile app, offers a unique stylistic take on the sonnets: The adaptation of Sonnet 73, which opens with “That time of year thou mayst in me behold,” depicts a gray, blurry image of a man sitting beneath a wintry arbor in Central Park while another man plays the saxophone. Sonnet 116—“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”—features a couple walking along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade in the rain. Sonnet 44—“If the dull substance of my flesh were thought”—uses special effects to portray a man walking in an abstract, geometric landscape as his skin morphs into different metals. 

The Sonnet Project app, which was launched in May 2013, has been an integral part of the project’s success, offering a catalogue of the filmed sonnets and a mapping feature that shows the setting used in each production. This allows the project to highlight locations in New York City that tourists and locals alike might otherwise overlook. “That’s been a part of the project that really makes people notice us,” says Williams, who adds that the interactivity of the project “could really make an impact” in terms of its reach. Additionally, each video provides a transcript of the sonnet, including a brief analysis and explanation of the wordplay. “It’s a unique platform to learn and expose all parts of Shakespeare,” says Karafin.

Ultimately, the project aims to nurture the next generation of readers and artists, helping them gain confidence with Shakespearean language and inspiring them to take on creative projects of their own. “We are currently deep in the creation of the Sonnet Project educational tools,” says Williams, who, by the end of the year, plans to unveil a two-week curriculum for high school students that teaches Shakespearean language and encourages students to create their own Sonnet Project films on their mobile devices. “We have had a number of educators tell us that they like to use the Sonnet Project in their classroom because it’s the one time of day they can stop telling their students to put their phones away,” says Williams.

So far, the Sonnet Project has engaged more than five hundred artists and produced videos for all but approximately thirty of the sonnets. Filmmakers and directors are invited to apply to create an original video adaptation of any of the remaining sonnets; if accepted, the Sonnet Project will work with that filmmaker to assign a New York City location, actor, and text coach for the film. In his plans for 2017, Williams hopes to launch a second series of videos of the 154 sonnets, this time filmed in locations all over the United States and abroad. The team also hopes to add several new mapping features to the app so that it can support walking tours and even scavenger hunts. “Our goal is to create a global conversation about Shakespeare,” says Williams. “By existing in a cinematic space, Shakespeare can feel alive and present.”

 

Maya C. Popa is a writer and teacher based in New York City. Her website is www.mayacpopa.com.

Calling Ishmael

by

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

12.15.15

A phone rings, but it’s not the one in your pocket; you realize the sound is coming from an old-school rotary pay phone in a corner of your favorite bookstore. You look around. It’s just you and this softly ringing relic of a bygone era. You pick up the phone. “Hello?” you say. “Ishmael, what’s going on, man?” a smooth-talking stranger says on the other end. “I just wanted to tell you a little bit about my experience with The Catcher in the Rye.”

Welcome to Call Me Ishmael, perhaps the most celebrated opening sentence in literary history and now an innovative and irresistible new tool for discovering books and sharing stories about them. The project began in 2014, when founders Logan Smalley and Stephanie Kent were exchanging favorite opening lines of books in a bar in New York City’s West Village. One of them wondered aloud, “What if Ishmael had a phone number? What if you actually could call him?” In an instant, the idea for Call Me Ishmael was born: a phone number, an answering machine, a website, and an invitation to “readers around the world to tell us stories about the books they love.”

The process is simple: If a reader has a story to tell about a particular book—how it was a source of inspiration, maybe, or how it was life changing—that reader can call Ishmael at (774) 325-0503 and leave the story as an anonymous voice mail. Those who just want to listen can visit the website (callmeishmael.com) and hear more than a thousand stories about books of all types: literary fiction, fantasy, mystery, poetry, nonfiction, and everything in between. Smalley and Kent select their favorite stories and share a few each week on the website and via social media. When the pair discover a particularly wonderful story, they transcribe it on a typewriter (yes, a real manual typewriter) and share it as a video.

But they’re not stopping there. Now, in the form of a rotary-style pay phone produced this winter, Call Me Ishmael will soon be found in bookstores, libraries, schools, coffee shops, and even homes around the world. A small placard on the phone provides a directory of books. Dial the number for, say, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or Mary Oliver’s Thirst, and moments later a caller is listening to a stranger’s journey with Kerouac or, in one of Smalley and Kent’s favorite calls, a woman’s recollection of serenading trees with Oliver’s verse in a Nashville park.

To fund the project, Smalley and Kent, who both have day jobs—Smalley is the director of TED Education and Kent works in community and marketing at Astrohaus—conducted a Kickstarter campaign in early November 2015. The campaign exceeded its ten-thousand-dollar goal in the first two days, and the project’s first phones will be produced early this year, including one that will be installed in Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia. The phone is portable, requires minimal space, and can be plugged in or powered by a rechargeable battery. It can be purchased outright (the cost is still being determined) or rented for events such as festivals or readings. Owners can also track the number of listens for each story on an app that manages the phone.

Owners of Call Me Ishmael phones can also use the app to assign any voice mail in Ishmael’s library (or stories that the phone owner uploads) to any button on the phone. “A bookstore might want to make all buttons correlate to stories about a visiting or local author, or a librarian might want to feature stories sourced from a fifth-grade class,” says Smalley. “It’s just a simple and, hopefully, delightful way to discover and celebrate books.” The phone’s app even has a “mysterious button”—when an owner presses the button on the app, the physical phone will start ringing. When someone answers, a message will play.

The response to Call Me Ishmael so far has been positive—not least, the founders believe, because it taps into why people so deeply love books. More than two thousand readers have called in and left messages, and the recordings have been played over a million times. “Ishmael is a really unique way to talk about books and to get people talking about books,” says Smalley. “It isn’t a review of books, it’s a way for people—writers, readers, teachers, anyone—to share stories about the stories that have touched them.” Kent agrees: “Books affect us in profound ways. Ishmael provides readers a way to share that experience, and it’s fascinating the range of people who call and the books they tell us about. Sometimes people call and instantly start crying. More often than not, they share intimate stories from their own lives.”

In one message, about Shirley Conran’s book Lace, a woman says, “I was adopted at birth. And at the time when I read this book, I wanted desperately to find my birth mother. And I found her.” In another, a man talks about his experience with Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches. “I was born about five months before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate by definition is not equal,” the caller says. “My Sunday school teacher told us that God wanted us to be separate.” Another: “I feel like I grew up with Harry Potter, as crazy as that sounds.”  

Ishmael also gets his fair share of prank calls (one caller asked Ishmael to pick up toilet paper for him, another declared her love for him). “The calls are just absolutely hilarious,” Kent says. “We compiled them for April Fools’ Day this year. It’s quite a treasure to wake up every day and hear what people have to say.”

Call Me Ishmael has also bridged the gap between readers and authors. Last March Cheryl Strayed posted a response to a Call Me Ishmael voice mail about her book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar, on her Facebook page, saying that the message made her day. John Green tweeted “I’m in tears” in response to a compilation video of readers who called Ishmael to share their experiences with Green’s young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars. This is precisely why Call Me Ishmael was designed, Kent says: “to build community via narrative and to share books. Strayed and Green are just two examples of how it can do this. We’re super excited to see where all of this goes.”

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum is a poet, an editor, and a lecturer at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He is the author of a poetry collection, Ghost Gear (University of Arkansas Press, 2014). His website is andrewmk.com.

   

Dear Readers, You Are Not Alone

by

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

12.14.16

When you walk into a bar full of people silently on their phones, no one thinks anything of it,” says Guinevere de la Mare, founder of San Francisco–based Silent Book Club. “But when you walk into a bar full of people silently reading books? Now that’s an arresting image.” It’s also an image that’s becoming more common, as a new literary trend gains traction around the country: silent reading parties.

Here’s how it works: A group of friends and strangers meet at a bar or library or private home once a month and read together. They don’t read the same book. They can come and go as they please. They’re not even expected to discuss what they’re reading. All they do is read, in a shared space, together, as a community. And while some show up, read, and leave without saying a word, many pass notes, laugh out loud, or share paragraphs they particularly love with one another.

“A lot of people end up hanging out all night,” says de la Mare, whose organization helps people start their own clubs across the country and overseas. “It’s a community-driven movement to get people out in public and switch out their phones for a book.”

The original silent reading party was held in 2009 by Christopher Frizzelle, who hosts a monthly meeting at the historic Sorrento Hotel in Seattle. “This is literature standing up for itself,” says Frizzelle, who is also the editor of the Stranger, an alternative weekly published in Seattle. “TV is so good now. Breaking Bad and The Wire are basically novels, and TV is an easier, more social act. Reading, on the other hand, no matter what it is, isn’t something you typically do with other people. Silent reading parties change all that.”

Since that original party eight years ago, writers and book lovers around the world have followed suit, launching their own silent reading parties in places like Bangalore, India; Brooklyn, New York; Portland, Oregon; Evansville, Indiana; and Spokane. This past April, writer Daniel Handler (also known as Lemony Snicket), started a silent reading party at a hotel bar in San Francisco, and donates a portion of the bar proceeds from each meeting to local libraries.

“The beauty of the parties is that they’re so easy,” Frizzelle says. “People interested in starting a reading party somewhere call me for advice. Nothing actually happens at the series, I tell them. People just get together and read. So I give them my blessing and tell them to keep it simple.”

De la Mare’s Silent Book Club goes a few steps further. In addition to hosting regular reading parties in San Francisco, the organization publishes a blog on reading and books, curates an international Silent Book Club event calendar, and offers tips on how to start a club. They even send an event kit to people looking to host their own club, which includes table signs, bookmarks, and coasters. Since establishing Silent Book Club in 2012, de la Mare has helped launch fifteen Silent Book Club chapters, with monthly events in more than twenty cities worldwide, including Washington, D.C.; Birmingham, Alabama; Des Moines; Phoenix; Oakland; Andover, England; and Melbourne, Australia.

Why are these groups where “nothing actually happens” so popular? Frizzelle thinks it’s obvious: “Reading is such an isolated activity,” he says. “You’re alone. The room is quiet. You don’t have anyone to share what you’re reading with. Which is all great, it’s part of why we read. But sometimes you want to be where things are happening too, like a bar.”

Ryan Molden, a regular attendee of Frizzelle’s silent reading party, echoes this sentiment, but with a twist: “When I first started going, I had just gone through a really hard breakup and was looking for new ways to meet people. I love to read, so I thought I would check it out. Long story short: I didn’t meet my girlfriend Jessica there, but when I asked her to join me, about a year and a half ago, we fell in love, and we just moved in together.” Molden adds, “The readings provided a great way to get to know each other. And seeing so many people engrossed in reading, in a time where reading is not exactly considered cool? That’s inspiring. We’re both so glad for the opportunity to share that time together. It’s the kind of thing the world needs more of.”

For de la Mare, silent reading parties help her carve out time to read in a busy schedule. “Being a mother,” she says, “you’re often completely alone. All day. And though I’ve identified as a reader my entire life, it was really hard to give myself permission to do something for me when I was raising my toddler. The silent book club gave me that permission. That’s a gift I wouldn’t, now that I have it, go without.” 

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach. He is the acquisitions editor of Upper Rubber Boot Books, founder and editor in chief of poemoftheweek.org, and founder of the Colorado Writers’ Workshop. His poetry collection, Ghost Gear, was published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2014. His website is andrewmk.com.

Pandemic Writers Group: Finding Creativity, Community, and Play

by

Marie Myung-Ok Lee

2.17.21

At the beginning of the pandemic, like many people in New York City, I was adjusting to a sudden lockdown and constant sirens, plus news that all of my cousin’s family members in Los Angeles were sick with COVID—one person on a ventilator. Partly to take my mind off the waiting (when someone’s in an induced coma from COVID, there’s not much you can do) I was writing a reported essay for the Los Angeles Times on how South Korea had its first COVID case the same day as the United States did but had already—unbelievably—controlled the virus. I was interviewing a friend who lives in Korea, the novelist and professor Krys Lee, about what that felt like. We decided to catch up more thoroughly after I filed the piece, so she and I planned on a Zoom. While we were at it, she said, why not do some writing?

In thirty-odd years of daily writing, I have never written with people. I know many people who do, but being solitary in my habits, I always felt constitutionally unable to join these real-time “writing dates.” But that March everything turned strange—not only was my extended family in peril, but my son with disabilities was suddenly not in school and we were receiving scary texts from the city urging us not to call 911 as it was overloaded because of COVID, while on the news Trump supporters were gleefully refusing to wear masks in public. If everything was going to be strange, I would be too: I told Krys yes. She suggested we each bring a friend. 

One friend demurred, being too busy. I brought my friend Curtis Chin. Funny, almost three decades ago, we’d spent our twenties creating the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Krys brought her friend Leland Cheuk, whose novel I had reviewed (favorably) earlier in the year, and suddenly we were four Asian American writers workshopping again. 

Workshopping, actually, is not quite the right word. That suggests work and goals. It was much more organic. Every Saturday we would log on at 6:30 PM Eastern for me and Leland, 3:30 PM for Curtis in L.A., and 7:30 AM for Krys in Korea. I ran the Zoom but would typically be the last to join, trying to jam in cooking dinner for my son. 

We came up with a minimal structure that allowed for maximal silliness: themed and timed writing prompts. Titles of movies, for example, or colors—someone would call out a color, we would write for eight or ten or twelve minutes, the grid on the screen going quiet as we wrote in our notebooks or typed at the computer, cameras on. We’d stop when the timer went off, then call out another prompt—“Chartreuse!”—laugh, start again. 

Sometimes, if the clock permitted, we’d do a lightning round of three or four minutes. The prompts often reflected things that were going on, like the election. We rewrote iconic movie scenes from other characters’ views. We wrote about what life felt like at different ages. Of places we’d like to go. Most recently we wrote on the theme of the seven deadly sins with Curtis tossing in that each sin could be represented by a character on Gilligan’s Island. We could be as silly, weird, or inept as we wanted on the page because we didn’t share any of what we produced.

Still, the first sessions tested my commitment issues. Two books in production, a medically fragile child, plus a teaching job still in full swing—forget sourdough breadmaking—COVID lockdown actually meant I had less time than before. 

And I felt self-conscious just staring into the silence after a prompt had been thrown out. Singapore? I have never been there! The ten minutes seemed forever as I pushed myself just to put random words down on the page. Once, I was totally stumped and took the prompt as an occasion to revisit a scene from my novel. 

Next week, I told myself, I’ll quit if I don’t like it. Everyone knows my time pressures with my son and my job. They’ll understand I can’t spare one to two hours just noodling around every week, especially when I have so many other Zooms for work. But I didn’t. The discomfort meant at least I could feel something, right? Also, everyone seemed to be writing. Once a wonky internet connection during a writing session meant that I, the unofficial timekeeper and Zoom runner, had to e-mail or text everyone a new log-in link. But people kept writing and writing and writing, oblivious to the broken Zoom link long after the ten minutes was up. I was envious of their absorption.

Then one Saturday the marimba chime from my phone’s timer made me almost fall out of my chair. Where was I? Wait—how could ten minutes be up? Preposterous! Despite myself, I had achieved that strange steady-flow state in which everything in the background fades away.

In my normal working life, my office door is closed, my schedule cleared, my phone off; I have everything set up to achieve that flow state—and stay there. Long stretches of uninterrupted time is a necessity for my work, and I’d thus been mourning the cancellation of two residencies, one that was supposed to start in March, the same week New York’s lockdown began. With my writers group, then, I found it a little weird to write intensely, then move on. What did it mean to turn the faucet on and off like some demented toddler, going from prompts such as “Star Wars” to “Psycho”? 

I was surprised, too, to look back on the scene I had rewritten that Saturday. Even though the prompt had nothing to do with any of the themes in my novel, I really liked a few sentences and ended up incorporating them into my manuscript. 

We kept meeting. Soon the engine of our days seemed to catch, like gears, and the group became part of not just my writing life, but my COVID life. Meeting weekly helped me make sense of COVID time, which had turned past-present-future into some kind of formless ectoplasm. Saturday came again, and again—a concrete reminder that time was passing. While waiting to hear about my cousin’s husband (he survived, after twenty-one days on a ventilator), our group was something to look forward to, weekly proof that even though our worlds had shrunk to our various apartments, the wider world was still there. One night Krys recounted how tired she was after going out with friends in Seoul and she couldn’t understand why we had all gone silent until Curtis explained that it was hard to process the rest of her story. We were all still stuck on the idea of being able to go out freely, knowing the virus is more or less controlled, with almost everyone masked and following protocol—her quotidian life was just science fiction fantasy for the rest of the group in the United States. 

In the absence of going to readings, conferences, in-person workshops, and residencies, the group has become how we create memories that mark the time we share with our friends and colleagues. With so many spontaneous opportunities for cross-pollination and fellowship gone, the group fills a large intellectual and creative deficit in my life. I used to love working my brains out all day at a residency, then “reuniting” at dinner with my artistic companions, and I am definitely feeling that lack now.

Also, so much of writing depends on observation of the world. I love New York City because it’s one of the best places for eavesdropping. Since this is now mostly impossible—I have not been on the subway since March 14, 2020—our weekly stories of our micro-existences are like birds bringing bright things back to the nest to share. Writers group is also my mental time away from my family, my time to play, not be a parent. 

While much has been made of the importance of play for children’s brain development, recent research has suggested that adult brains need it too. In fact, the National Institute for Play suggests the sharp falloff in play for adults may even be dangerous for our mental health and urges us to make time for turn-taking play such as board games, mimicking the space where children develop not just their creative brains, but also their social brains. 

It occurred to me that our writers group’s format is an adult version of neighborhood kickball, except that instead of going to one another’s houses and asking people to come play, we put it in our Google calendars and meet on Zoom. After, we pack up our stuff, fondly say goodbye, and rush off to our respective time zones until we meet again. 

What we know about the brain and creativity also suggests that our anti-productivity group just might be extremely productive. Sticking to our usual writing habits or ways of being productive can actually put us in a rut. Kendra Bryant, PhD, a neuropsychologist at Neuropsychology and Concussion Management Associates and the past president of the Maine Psychological Association, puts it as, “There’s a pathway in our brain that is responsible for carrying out loops, and aspects of whatever kind of work we do can become repetitive and routine, a kind of autopilot, even if we think we are ‘thinking’ about the tasks,” which can, she posits, lead to things like writer’s block. And finding a way to focus during the pandemic sometimes feels impossible. Writer David Wondrich tweeted that writing during COVID was “like writing with a head full of molasses and fireflies.” Distractions and flickers of ideas. 

So what if you had a place to dump all these ideas without worrying about where they were going, like Julia Cameron’s famous recommendation to free-write three “morning pages” every day? Bryant agrees that such an arrangement might look like our group: “Allowing ‘not thinking’ and drifting mentally in a more free-form way can invite ultimately a more active/creative aspect of brain function to kick in…. Neurocognitively, letting thoughts wander without purpose allows for discovery.”

A few months in, Curtis revealed that he was finishing up a manuscript and asked for feedback. We were eager to help. A workplace efficiency expert would probably suggest using one of our normal Saturday sessions, but we instinctively sequestered anything redolent of “work for publication” far, far away. We held a separate session, our professional writer selves ready to critique. Curtis’s work turned out to be so good (he’d used a lot of the prompts, he told me, to experiment with voices), I asked my group-mates if anyone else was “sneaking” things out from our scribble sessions into the professional space. 

Krys said she’d found seeds of short stories in her work. Leland said that since he was deep into revising a project for publication, the exercises allowed him to be generative outside of his big project, and he, too, had written a few short stories inspired by the prompts. For me, doing this writing has ironically led to the capacity for more writing. While looking for a blank notebook for the group, I found one that contained the beginning of a short story I’d discarded—and suddenly found the motivation to finish it. I finished my novel revision, wrote two more COVID-related pieces on deadline, and started a new novel. This fall I actually started doing the daily morning pages as well. Perhaps constantly writing made that first plunge into the empty page that much less intimidating.

After our session writing about the seven deadly sins, I learned that ancient Christians considered there to be an eighth deadly sin: an “anxious heart,” as translated from the Greek. A monk is especially susceptible to the sin when spending time sequestered in a monastery. According to the monk John Cassian’s fifth-century text The Institutes, as translated by Boniface Ramsey, the anxious heart “does not allow him to stay still” yet makes one “immobile in the face of all the work to be done.” This particular sin was moralized into a shameful spiritual pollution that needed to be kept from the normally industrious population. It makes me wonder if our American Protestant work ethic—#grindmode and #hustle—similarly causes paralysis simply via the expectations that anyone who hasn’t written King Lear while mastering sourdough starter and a second or third language is just not making good use of COVID “downtime.” Early on in the pandemic, when I was packing mask liners for friends who work in hospitals, I definitely had moments when I’d wonder if my chosen career of making up imaginary worlds called into question not the how but the why of writing.

Much of the “anxious heart” stems from confronting what we cannot individually control. We wear masks to care for others, but if a large segment of the population does the opposite, all that individual work is lost. Many of our institutions are letting us down, or maybe the pandemic is revealing they never really cared about us in the first place. Our writers group then is a chosen space, chosen people with whom we spend minutes of what Mary Oliver called our “wild and precious life.” And just as wild and precious as ever is our deliberate expression of care. Because we’re not family, we feel an extra sense of responsibility and commitment to one another for deliberately choosing to be our group of four, to care for one another as writers and friends. Often our pre-workshop catch-ups revolve around what we are eating, are planning to eat. For Krys it’s breakfast. Curtis is dinner. Leland and I may have already been done with food for the day. We reminisce about old meals, dream about future ones. We have decided when the lockdown ends to go eat pasta in Italy together.

Just as much of writing is showing up every day to do the work, this practice is about showing up every week for others. I’ve been in other groups where members run out of gas, are flaky, or don’t pull their weight. But our group has offered fun and fellowship, as well as a reminder of why we write. Krys says the group helped her recommit, realize that writing matters, and still matters. The group has also become her writing retreat, her writing church of the “same people every week,” and, she says, amid the bleak global pandemic news, “gives me back some joy” in writing and in fellowship.

Similarly I’ve spent a lot of time staring at the things in my office because when I can’t come up with a prompt, I use objects around me. I have my childhood typewriter, the one that made me want to become a writer at age nine, and the eight-minute scribbles remind me of how all I needed was a ream of blank paper and a fresh ribbon to be happy, sometimes just typing aimlessly to hear the sound of the metal keys hitting the platen. As an adult, through the high-tech of my laptop, the invisible atoms that connect my face and voice to my friends allow me to slip back into this “beginner’s mind” and recall the freedom and joy of why I wanted to write in the first place. This includes the early days of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, before any of us became professional writers, when we gathered just to be with other like-minded people, not to become “famous writers.” One of the gifts of the pandemic is revisiting that time.

Going into Saturdays with no expectations, no hierarchies, and no professionalism is the accidental engine, I think, that makes our group work. The uncertainty and unknowingness of creation is compounded by the uncertainty of what news each day will bring. 

The group, then, is a calming and unswerving punctuation of the week, as I watch the pages of my notebook (now my third) fill. It’s as satisfying as nurturing plants, baking bread, and the other creative things people are newly doing to pass the time during COVID. No doubt, being able to meet each week to do “nothing” is an absolute privilege. But another week that we’re here again, healthy and safe, is not something to be ashamed of but to celebrate.

I still am that person who doesn’t like writing spontaneously with other people. And one for whom a weekly commitment is something my rational planning mind screams I’m too busy for. I am all this while Saturdays keep coming, and it reminds me, like my daily practice of trying to write my next book, that this is just one chapter, there is another out there, waiting, as yet unwritten. 

 

Marie Myung-Ok Lee is an acclaimed Korean American writer and author of the young adult novel Finding my Voice, thought to be one of the first contemporary-set Asian American YA novelsShe is one of a handful of American journalists who have been granted a visa to North Korea since the Korean War. She was the first Fulbright Scholar to Korea in creative writing and has received many honors for her work, including an O. Henry honorable mention, the Best Book Award from the Friends of American Writers, and a New York Foundation for the Arts fiction fellowship. Her stories and essays have been published in the Atlantic, the New York Times, Slate, Salon, Guernica, the Paris Review, the Nation, and the Guardian, among others. Marie is a founder of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and teaches creative writing at Columbia. She lives in New York City with her family.

The author’s writing group, clockwise from upper left: Marie Myung-Ok Lee, Leland Cheuk, Curtis Chin and his cat Lisa, and Krys Lee.

The Many Different Kinds of Writers Groups

by

Jessica Kashiwabara

2.16.22

Writing is a solitary act. As a writer, you’ve likely heard, or possibly even said, some version of this statement to explain the process of sitting alone at a desk, figuring out how to translate what’s in your mind onto a screen or paper. If you flip to the last pages of any book, however, there is almost always an acknowledgements page filled with a list of fellow writers to whom the author is grateful for reading early drafts and offering support and advice along the way. Evidence there is a community behind those printed words. Consider the famous literary circles in history such as the writers of Stratford-on-Odéon, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein, who frequently met at Adrienne Monnier’s la Maison des Amis des Livres and Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris to discuss their work and share ideas. Or the South Side Writers Group in Chicago, with members such as Arna Bontemps, Frank Marshall Davis, Fenton Johnson, Marian Minus, Margaret Walker, and Richard Wright, who convened at the Abraham Lincoln Centre to discuss their ambitions as Black writers. If writing is a solitary act, being a writer certainly isn’t.

Writers need writers. And there are many ways to help one another’s practice. Some writers might need a critical eye for their work, some could be looking to bounce ideas off one another, while others might just want support to keep their writing going. For some, finding a writers group might happen naturally by meeting writers through workshops, conferences, or MFA programs. For others, the opportunity to meet like-minded writers can be more challenging. 

To assist and support those writers, in March 2021, Poets & Writers launched a free online platform that enables the kind of connection crucial to a successful writers group. Using Poets & Writers Groups, writers can seek out existing groups indexed on the site or create their own group and invite others to join. The only requirement is to create a free writer profile, which includes details about one’s writing experience and preferences for a writers group, such as meeting in person or online, frequency, genre, and group size. With a profile, writers can then message one another on the platform, whether it’s just to connect or to send an invitation or request to join a group. During the development of Poets & Writers Groups, I was part of a small team that brainstormed potential ways writers might want to use the platform; we came up with a list of terms to represent different types of groups, including accountability partners, critique, discussion, encouragement, inspiration, reading, submissions, tips, workshop, and writing exercises. As of this writing there are over a thousand individual profiles and nearly a hundred groups on the platform.

Michelle Tamara Cutler leads a group on Poets & Writers Groups called From Pitch to Publication, which meets monthly to workshop nonfiction pieces, discuss projects, and help find outlets to submit work for publication. The intimate group, consisting of only three writers, meets online from three different time zones—Pacific (California), Eastern (New York), and Central European (Spain). Because they write nonfiction, there is a special emphasis on privacy and trust, and feedback on each piece is an open dialogue and discussion. Another important factor for the group is that the members share an ambition to publish their work and have a certain level of experience with submissions so they can be strategic in their collaboration. “We set goals, follow up with each other about them, and share resources and opportunities that might be better for another member than ourselves,” says Cutler. 

Although there is an element of workshopping, Cutler emphasizes that sometimes only a “vote of confidence” is needed for a writer to work toward a final draft to submit for publication. If members don’t have a written piece to discuss, they bring in ideas, similar to a pitching session in a writers room—a familiar space for Cutler, who has developed and adapted nonfiction stories as a screenwriter. This could lead to suggestions for experimentation with new essay forms or supportive conversations on writing about difficult subject matter. “When you can bounce ideas off of each other in the earliest stages, talk through topics that have personal trauma attached, demystify taboo subjects, you have a better chance at finding your voice when writing about them,” says Cutler. 

Before the pandemic, Lynne Connor, a former assistant in the Readings & Workshops program of Poets & Writers, was running in-person workshops in Brooklyn, New York, through her literary arts space, Lost Lit. When the city’s 2020 lockdown extended into months, Connor had to give up the lease on the rented space for Lost Lit and put a pause on running her workshops. Still, the bond she shared with these writers was strong, especially with those who participated in her grief writing workshops, and Connor wanted to find a way to continue writing as a group. “I missed coming together in a supportive environment,” she says. “I write my best raw, emotional work by writing with others.”

A group of six writers from Connor’s workshops agreed to begin meeting once a month via Zoom. Each meeting started with a check-in to see how everyone was faring through the pandemic, and then the group was given ten to fifteen minutes to write from a curated prompt. Members could then read their work, but it was not required. Only positive feedback was given, with emphasis on encouragement and a focus on the craft of writing. “The mix of having a prompt and the time limit, then the boost in my writer’s self-esteem from the positive feedback—it’s just the right ingredients,” says Connor. “It made the pandemic bearable.”

Many writers groups are small and intimate, but there are also examples of larger groups that are open to new members. The East Austin Writing Project run by Marissa Anne Ayala is a public group that uses Meetup to organize meetings. The group, which is primarily focused on supporting writers and artists in the East Austin neighborhood of the Texas capital, was founded in 2018, managed by James Morena, and is now led by Ayala and Julia Bouchard. With more than six hundred members, the East Austin Writing Project caps each monthly meeting at seventeen members who sign up to attend—and there is usually a waiting list of about ten writers who may join the following month’s meeting. Some members consistently attend each month, while others flow in and out depending on their projects and schedules, but there is always a strong sense of community among the writers. At the start of the pandemic the group met virtually, but it has recently begun to meet in person again at small, locally owned businesses in East Austin such as coffee shops and restaurants. Writers working in all genres are accepted, and members include poets, prose writers, screenwriters, and songwriters. Meetings begin with twenty minutes of freewriting from a prompt curated by Ayala, and members can opt to read their work, but there is no critiquing. “For me the writing prompts are designed for each person to experience writing as a place of play,” says Ayala. “When we share our stream of consciousness writing, we are able to support one another through vulnerability and experimentation.”

Critique is reserved for the second part of the meeting in which three to four writers, who submit their works of poetry and prose to be read ahead of the meeting, have their pieces workshopped. Ayala carefully structures the traditional MFA workshop-style discussion with guidelines so that writers give and receive constructive and specific feedback. Members are encouraged to consider how best to help each individual writer and use the process to push forward their own artistic endeavors. “My goal with the East Austin Writing Project is to truly create community through the practice of writing as a collaborative act that brings together diverse perspectives, people, experiences, and art,” says Ayala.

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, Alyss Dixson, and Ashaki M. Jackson founded Women Who Submit (WWS) in Los Angeles in 2011 as a response to the lack of gender diversity in the publishing industry. What began as a small group of women writers hosting submission parties at one another’s homes has grown into an organization with over three hundred members in Los Angeles and twenty-seven additional chapters in the United States, as well as one in Mexico and another in France in the works. The flagship group in Los Angeles also hosts quarterly workshops and panels on aspects of submitting, publishing, and cultivating a writing career as an extension of their mission to empower women and nonbinary writers to submit their work for publication. While WWS isn’t a writers group per se—“The term implies we’re meeting to workshop or write; we’re more like a writers support group,” says Bermejo—it is another example of the myriad kinds of groups writers can look to for community.

Despite the growth of Women Who Submit, the sense of support and intimacy has not been lost: Submission parties still consist of small groups of writers meeting online or in physical spaces such as local coffee shops. Another aspect that hasn’t changed is the encouraging, uplifting atmosphere. “When we meet in person to submit in real time, we clap for each other when we hit Send,” says Bermejo. “It’s the best feeling to hear a roomful of writers clap for you. We also clap for being rejected. We celebrate every part of the publication process.” 

Whether it is about writing together, sharing resources, or cheering one another on, participating in a writers group expands the experience of being a writer and of the writing process. If you’re a writer feeling stuck and a little too buried in solitude, there is a group out there for you. And if you don’t find one that suits you, make your own. As Cutler says about the support she receives from her writers group: “We are all taking our writing lives out into the open; it helps to have people you can trust in your corner.” 

 

Jessica Kashiwabara is the digital director of Poets & Writers, Inc.

A Practical Guide to Starting a Group of Your Own

by

Michelle Wildgen

2.16.22

I recently joined a no-reading writers group. We meet once a month to talk writing, publishing, editing, teaching, and any other topics that arise, from Scotland to pet rats. The only thing we don’t do is share our work and discuss it. This no-reading approach was not my idea, but I did enthusiastically embrace it. (Actually, what I said was, “Not only do I have no new writing to share, but I categorically refuse to generate any.” I was having a bit of a dark afternoon of the soul, from which I’ve since recovered.) Anyway, the whole idea gets me thinking about just how malleable the goals of a writers group can, and should, be. 

The first hurdle is finding your people. I tell my writing students that half the reason to take a class—be it a tight four-weeker on characterization, a free library seminar, or an accredited university workshop—is to find the writers you enjoy and who seem to get your work, with hopes of beginning to build your writing community. (I’m still exchanging work with people from graduate school, and we graduated in 2002.) Nowadays an online meeting is as viable as an in-person one, maybe more so for reasons of ease and travel, which makes online classes a great option if you don’t live in a place with an abundance of literary events. You can look into forming or joining a group using a free tool like Poets & Writers Groups, investigate your local library or bookstore for classes and reading groups, or find a good place to post a notice for your own group. If you are near a university or community college, you might discover online bulletin boards, extension courses, readings, book groups, craft talks, conferences, and retreats for writers of all stripes: Show up, be an engaged literary citizen, and keep an eye out for one or two people with whom you click. If you live far from such possibilities, it might be worth traveling for a weekend-long retreat or conference. Find your people there and stay in touch as a group online. Ask around outside your writing circles too. Most of us know one of those people who knows everyone else—try them even if they aren’t a writer. And pay attention everywhere: Just as you steal anecdotes from unwitting companions, keep a raptor’s eye out for compatible writers. Be patient. These things tend to follow their own schedules, and you can start with just one partner.

Once you have a few people in your group, talk frankly about logistics and what you all desire. I recommend rotating meeting places, as the pandemic allows, particularly if you’re meeting at group members’ homes, so no one feels unduly put upon and everyone has to pony up for tea and seltzer every few months. (Maybe it goes without saying that if you have never met your new group, don’t start off at your homes but at a coffee shop or library meeting space.) Don’t bother with snacks, which just become another thing to worry about. Keep your group on the smallish side. I limit my workshops to eight writers plus me, and for a writers group, three to six might be the sweet spot.  I’ve never worked in a group with a designated leader, but some groups do appoint someone to run each session. If you think you have a leader who won’t become drunk with power, it might work beautifully. You might rotate this role: One month someone has to share their own writing, while another person has to share a published piece and lead the discussion of it, and so on. 

It may not be crucial that everyone work in the same microgenre, but you need some clear commonality. Be honest with yourselves about the kind of work you all connect with and on which you have insight. Are you really as sharp a reader of cozy mysteries as you are of spindly, demanding literary architectures? Maybe the picture book group needs to splinter off, and the YA novelists can do the same. 

Even more important than genre is a companionable level of writing commitment. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a group of writers who have no desire to publish the work they share each month, nor with a group of cutthroat professionals who have spreadsheets of their awards and reviews, but I say don’t mix them. This is less about accomplishment than temperament—an unpublished but passionately dedicated writer might fit in with the intensity people; a well-published writer in need of a change of pace or a break from their usual genre might find that relaxed group just the thing. I know a few expert writers (in poetry and fiction) who hired someone to run a regular meeting on the essay—she gives them prompts and feedback, and they get to branch out into a genre they hadn’t focused on before. Before you all commit, have a frank conversation about your writing goals, and don’t pretend to share them if you really have other needs for your group. 

Decide on feedback expectations ahead of time. Line edits and margin comments? Just an editorial letter? Verbal discussion only? I recommend keeping feedback focused and simple: Vote yea or nay on marginalia, and limit written feedback to a page or two of specific notes. I do recommend some form of written commentary though. It forces readers to articulate their points and focus on the most important ones, and frankly it helps the writer recall all the feedback when they return to the work a week or two later. 

How about the discussion itself? Establish how long you will talk about each piece and then designate a rotating timekeeper to keep it all equal. How many works will you discuss at each meeting? This may change as you get a feel for your group, which is fine too.

Don’t assume everyone knows the conventions of workshops or wants to stick to them, but here are a few to consider. Conversation doesn’t have to occur around a table, as long as you can all face one another. Life is a lot nicer for everyone if you start by going around the circle to say what you loved before opening up the floor to free-flowing discussion. No interrupting the speaker, of course, and remind everyone that you are not evaluating the people in the story on personal terms (“Rory’s a jerk”), but rather on craft terms (“I could not tell why it was important to the story that Rory always kick someone in the shins before he leaves the room”). I like to stay with the workshop trope of the writer’s not participating in the discussion until we’re done, unless they need to seal off a rabbit hole of factually incorrect discussion by saying something like “Actually, Rory is not a ghost.” Open the floor to the writer after discussion, but consider doing so with pointed questions like “What’s still getting under your skin about this piece? What are you trying to figure out?” That time is for the writer to ask specific questions we didn’t focus on, to clarify confusing feedback. It’s not their chance to explain their work at length—the place to do that was the work itself.

You get back what you put into a writers group. You’d be amazed how often we forget that. I’ve seen writers who never read others’ work but then wondered why they got little feedback on their own; writers who made not even a cursory effort to modulate their tone and then were deeply offended when they received, shall we say, retributively honest feedback on their own work. But mostly what I see is writers taking a moment to think about what helped their writing and doing their level best to offer the same to others. Experienced or not, people generally rise to the occasion. 

Now let’s talk punctuality. You must never underestimate the teenage sloths lurking inside even the most capable adults. Honoring the group’s established timeline is nonnegotiable. I am telling you from long workshop experience that the very nanosecond someone blows a deadl