Building Solidarity Through Poetry

Swati Khurana

In April 2021 the South Asian diaspora poets collective Matwaala hosted a virtual poetry festival inaugurating its Poets of Color series. The event featured five Black poets—Dorothy Randall Gray, Cynthia Manick, Marsha M. Nelson, Anastasia Tomkin, and Loretta Diane Walker. Nelson’s poetry spoke to the moment, to a rapt audience: “Black men and women need to breathe / in a claustrophobic society / to relieve the anxiety / that George Floyd felt / eyeing the backseat / of a small squad car….” While Matwaala was originally founded to bring greater visibility to South Asian poetry, the series reflects the way Matwaala itself has become a growing and expansive community, mindfully working to create solidarity across identity groups through literature. 

In 2015 the Matwaala collective was launched by Usha Akella and Pramila Venkateswaran to increase the visibility of South Asian diasporic poetry. Both of its founders bring rich experience in activism to the endeavor. The former creative ambassador for the city of Austin, Akella previously founded the Poetry Caravan, an organization with branches in Austin and New York State that brings poetry readings to women’s shelters, senior homes, and hospitals. The author of multiple books of poetry, Akella faced an online harassment campaign from men’s rights activists in India for her April 2021 book, I Will Not Bear You Sons, leading its publisher, Spinifex Press, to issue a statement in support of the poet’s feminist indictment of Brahmanic patriarchy. Pramila Venkateswaran, former poet laureate of Suffolk County, in New York’s Long Island, is the author of eight books, including the forthcoming We Are Not a Museum, which is an homage to the Jewish community of Kochi, India, and will be out in May from Finishing Line Press. 

“Matwaala” was a name suggested to Akella and Venkateswaran by scholar Amritjit Singh and translates loosely as a word describing someone who is intoxicated—perhaps even drunk. Yet the word “is used more often in a transferred sense,” according to Akella, “for someone who is a free spirit, denoting creative adventure and freedom, artistic assertiveness, and nonconformity.” For the past several years, Matwaala’s annual poetry festivals, originally organized in Texas but more recently hosted by institutions such as Nassau Community College, New York University, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, have featured poets such as Zilka Joseph, Sophia Naz, Saleem Peeradina, Vijay Seshadri, Ravi Shankar, and the late Meena Alexander. Other undertakings include the publication of MAPS: Matwaala Anthology of Poetry From South Asia in 2019 and the launch of Sync Poetry, a youth platform hosted by Sara Garg and Diya Kanduri. In early 2020, Matwaala made a foray into art installation with a project called the Poetry Wall, which contained poems by twenty-four poets from the South Asian diaspora for the Smithsonian’s “Beyond Bollywood” traveling exhibition project at the Irving Archives and Museum in Dallas. But shortly after the exhibition opened, the COVID-19 pandemic halted any museum programming. As the organization thought about its future public programs, Akella says, “The turbulent racial events in 2020 motivated me personally to engage with African American literature and film.” With Venkateswaran, Matwaala pivoted its focus to programming that creates solidarity with Black, Latinx, and Indigenous poets. 

The Poets of Color series is the result of this reimagining of the organization’s mission. Following the African American poetry reading, in July 2021 Matwaala hosted a reading featuring poets of Mexican descent: María Baranda, Ana Belén López, Mariana Bernárdez, Fernando Carrera, Elsa Cross, Manuel Iris, Luis Armenta Malpica, Jorge Ortega, and Natalia Toledo. In March 2022 the organization hosted a reading focused on Native American poetry, spotlighting poets Lyla June, Lucille Lang Day, and Andrina Smith. The series is sketched out to run into 2023, featuring South American, Central American, Asian American, Caribbean, and Dalit poets.

Venkateswaran says that engaging with African American and Native American poets was an invitation to “think more critically of the privileging of voices within the South Asian community,” specifically through caste-based oppression. In a statement of solidarity given at the African American poets reading, she spoke of the two-century-old “solidarity between South Asians and African Americans.” Remarking upon Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to India in 1959, Venkateswaran highlighted King’s insight that “the inhumanity of white people against Black people was similar to the caste system where upper-caste Brahmins treated [the Dalits] as pariahs.” In a gesture of building bridges through poetry communities, Venkateswaran translated Tamil Dalit poet Sukirtharani into English and has prepared a dossier on Native American poets for the Dalit literary magazine Anangu

The transition to virtual poetry festivals over the past two years has allowed Matwaala to attract a larger national and international audience. While the organization may resume some in-person events, it plans to also continue virtual programs to maintain the audience it has built. With these solidarity programs, Matwaala saw a demographic shift in its audience. Previously Matwaala’s audience was “mostly South Asian and white,” according to Venkateswaran, whereas its Native American poetry event engaged many in the Shinnecock Reservation in eastern Long Island as well as the poets’ friends and colleagues in Native American communities across the country. At the conclusion of each program, Akella and Venkateswaran hold discussions with each poet to engage in questions of craft and the thematic threads of the poems. These conversations—and the dialogues the readings build more broadly—reflect Matwaala’s directors’ fundamental belief that we can only flourish when we think and act collectively. “Very long ago,” Akella says, “I understood that for me personally, success did not mean forging ahead alone; it always had a component of community and activism.”

 

Swati Khurana is a New York City–based writer, artist, and tarot reader, and the flash fiction editor at the Margins, a publication of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Her writing has been featured in the New York Times and Guernica, and she has received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Center for Fiction, and Kundiman.

Q&A: Uddin Takes the Helm at AAWW

by

Kavita Das

4.8.20

This January, Jafreen Uddin assumed leadership of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW) as its new executive director. Located in New York City, the twenty-nine-year-old organization has been a de facto home for Asian American writers and literature, fostering community and providing space for essential dialogues through its events, classes, and fellowships, as well as its online literary magazine, the Margins. Uddin succeeds poet Ken Chen, who led the AAWW for eleven years, and becomes the seventh person and first woman to head the nonprofit. She brings with her a decade of experience, including her most recent work as PEN America’s deputy director of development for special events. As she stepped into her new role, Uddin shared her thoughts on the significance of Asian American literature—for herself and for all readers—and the importance of supporting storytellers and stories from the Asian diaspora. 

What did Asian American writing mean to you growing up, and what does it mean to you now?
I didn’t fully discover and appreciate Asian American literature until I stumbled across Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies my senior year of high school. To discover a collection of stories that instantly felt like home was something I had never experienced before and is something I still relish today when I read Asian American literature. 

What drew you to this position at AAWW?
The workshop is an organization I’ve long admired. As a supporter, community collaborator, and audience member, I witnessed the workshop become one of the most dynamic alternative literary and social justice spaces here in New York City. Back when I was managing public events at the Brennan Center for Justice, I often looked to the workshop as a partner on book talks and special events. 

What is your vision for building on AAWW’s work thus far, and how does your identity shape that vision?
As a Muslim American woman, I know all too well what it means to be a member of a community that is misunderstood and often talked about more than talked to. It is why I am honored to have the chance to lead an organization that nurtures our storytellers. By championing our community’s writers and artists, we are championing the community at large. 

What are the greatest challenges Asian American writers face, and how can AAWW address them?
The workshop is often described as a real sanctuary for our writers and artists, and continuing that tradition is a priority of mine. A challenge facing not just Asian American writers but emerging writers more broadly is learning the ins and outs of the publishing industry. I would love to develop programs and events that can cater to this decidedly less sexy but critically important need for our writers. 

In our current sociopolitical moment, when intolerance towards immigrants and minority groups, including Muslim Americans, is driven in part by our current administration’s rhetoric and policies, what role might AAWW play?
If anything, this current sociopolitical moment calls for the amplification of Asian American voices. The workshop plays a powerful role in allowing members of otherwise underrepresented communities to make their voices heard while also providing them that sanctuary where they are understood and honored. 

What is your take on how the publishing industry approaches diverse stories and voices? And what can AAWW’s role be in addressing these issues?
Numbers don’t lie: There is a clear problem of representation at all ranks in the publishing world. The industry has come a long way with respect to telling stories by and for all communities, but there is still so much more to be done. And not just when it comes to embracing stories written by authors from all walks of life, but also making sure the industry gatekeepers, the people deciding which stories are told, are appropriately diverse. There is a uniquely critical role for the workshop in this ongoing effort—from providing our community of writers the tools and resources they need to navigate the publishing industry to creating necessary platforms [for their work], we are in a position to bridge that gap between the publishing industry and the storytellers who aren’t yet being heard. 

How do you strike a balance between AAWW’s dual objectives of creating a space for and supporting Asian American writers and growing the audience of Asian American literature beyond those who identify as Asian American?
I don’t think one needs to be at the expense of the other. By nurturing our own community of writers and artists and providing a space for their stories and imaginations, we are simultaneously preparing those storytellers to share their work on larger more expansive stages. As I think about ways to expand the workshop’s reach on a national and even global level, the need to connect with new audiences is a critical and necessary piece of that expansion. 

 

Kavita Das writes about culture, race, gender, and their intersections. Her first book, Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar, was published in June 2019 (HarperCollins India).

Jafreen Uddin (Credit: Tony Gale)

AAWW Continues the Conversation

by

Arvin Temkar

12.15.15

Sir Patrick Hill. Emily Nicholson. Katie Trump. These are just a few of the names created using the tongue-in-cheek #WhitePenName Generator, a website launched by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW) last fall. The generator, meant to spotlight the advantages that come with a Caucasian-sounding name, was born in the wake of September’s literary scandal surrounding white poet Michael Derrick Hudson, who, after having a poem rejected by forty journals, adopted the Chinese pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou in an attempt to have a better shot at publication. He revealed himself after landing a coveted spot under the pseudonym in The Best American Poetry 2015.

The outcry that followed created an opportunity for conversation about racial inequality in publishing, says AAWW executive director Ken Chen. Celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary this year, the AAWW is at the front lines of that very conversation. A self-described arts space “devoted to literature at the intersection of race, migration, and social justice,” the New York City–based organization is committed to advancing the creation and publication of Asian American writing. It’s at once an incubator for emerging writers, a community center, an advocacy group, and a publisher.

The case of Michael Derrick Hudson highlights the long-standing imbalances that Asian American writers face in the literary world. “People care about Michael Derrick Hudson,” says Chen, “but they’re not always reminded that there are almost no people of color as senior editors in major publications.” A 2014 Publishers Weekly survey found that 89 percent of the publishing industry is white—and that, like many writers of color, Asian Americans struggle to receive critical attention for their work. Roxane Gay’s study of the New York Times books coverage showed that in 2011, 655 out of 742 reviewed books (or 88 percent) were written by white authors; only 33 of those books—or 4.4 percent—were written by Asian Americans. To illuminate the work of Asian American poets in the wake of the Hudson debacle, the AAWW also launched the #ActualAsianPoet Twitter campaign, encouraging users to tweet the names and work of Asian and Asian American poets. The effort quickly went viral, with established poets such as Bao Phi, Monica Youn, Timothy Yu, and Jenny Zhang sharing their own experiences as well as the work of others, and a number of major news outlets—including the New York Times, NPR, the New Yorker, the Guardian, and the Atlantic—joining in the conversation.

Established in 1991 by a group of writers in New York City, the AAWW was founded to crack open this very kind of discussion. The AAWW “grew out of our own frustration of not seeing ourselves in the literary climate,” says novelist and cofounder Marie Lee. Now a nonprofit, the AAWW offers a range of programming to address the inequities that Asian American writers continue to face. The organization’s flagship publication, the Margins, an online journal, offers poetry, fiction, and cultural criticism from the Asian diaspora. Its other online publication, Open City, is a more journalistic enterprise, featuring stories about Asian American communities in New York City that are often overlooked.

The nonprofit also offers annual paid grants and fellowships for Asian American writers to work for the Margins and Open City. The recently established Margins Fellowships are awarded to three New York City–based emerging poets, fiction writers, or nonfiction writers each year, and include a five-thousand dollar stipend, mentorship with an Asian American writer, publication in the Margins, and a residency at the Millay Colony for the Arts in upstate New York. (Applications for 2017 fellowships will open in the fall.)

The AAWW also hosts a series of events that feature more than two hundred writers each year, from readings with emerging writers to conversations with literary heavyweights like Salman Rushdie. The organization has also hosted publishing conferences, as well as events that have tackled subjects like the history of colonization and race relations. “We’re dedicated to creating a space of ethnic counterculture,” says Chen. “The idea is getting people together in the same room who would never otherwise know each other.”

Among the workshop’s allies are writers such as Junot Díaz, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Jhumpa Lahiri, who cites AAWW’s support as having been crucial to her career development. Novelist Alexander Chee, who first encountered the AAWW in 1997 when he was invited to give a reading, credits the organization with helping him grow professionally. Chee met both his agent and the editor of his first novel, Edinburgh (Welcome Rain Publishers, 2001), through AAWW events.

As it hits its quarter-century mark, the AAWW is working to expand its programming. Chen says there will likely be several celebrations throughout the year that will explore the ways in which Asian American identity and literary culture has changed over the past twenty-five years. The organization is also working to publish Asian-language writers in Open City, and hopes to expand the reach of its grants and fellowships nationwide. Like many in the AAWW community, Chee looks forward to witnessing these changes. “I think the next phase for the workshop will be exciting to see.”

Arvin Temkar is a writer in San Francisco and an editor for Hyphen, a magazine of Asian American news and culture. Follow him on Twitter, @atemkar.

 

Small Press Points: Kaya Press

by

Staff

6.16.21

The name of Kaya Press comes from a confederation of city-states in ancient Korea where the arts flourished at the confluence of several cultures. For more than twenty-five years, the press has served as a similar nexus of experiment, abundance, and cross-pollination: “Kaya occupies a unique place in publishing both Asian Pacific American and Asian diasporic literature,” says managing editor Neelanjana Banerjee. Founded in 1994 by writer Soo Kyung Kim, Kaya originally set out to produce a journal of Korean translation “but quickly became known for being a space for Asian American and Asian diasporic literature that ignored genre and identity as defining boundaries,” Banerjee says. Today the press operates as a nonprofit, housed by the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and is steered by publisher Sunyoung Lee (“a true book whisperer,” says Banerjee).

The four to six titles Kaya publishes each year traverse and often defy the categories of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction and include works in translation and recovered works, like Andrew Leong’s translations of Shoson Nagahara’s novellas first published in the 1920s in L.A.’s Little Tokyo. Upcoming titles include Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik’s book Archive of Dreams, in which Bhaumik “maps her artistic and activist journey and documents the stories of her parents,” and Truong Tran’s book of the other, “a provocative collection of poems, prose, and essays that voice the rage and hurt of institutional racism against Asian Americans.” Kaya is open for submissions of Asian diasporic literature year-round through its website and does not charge a reading fee.

Small Press Points: Black Ocean

by

Staff

4.14.21

I wanted to create a press that would bring the attention of a major publishing house to quality and design and treat poetry as a genre with frontlist potential,” says Janaka Stucky of Black Ocean, an independent press based in Boston and Chicago whose striking volumes have been captivating readers for more than fifteen years. As an emerging poet with roots in the DIY zine scene, Stucky longed to see publishers more energized about the poetry titles on their lists. Together with two friends, Stucky founded Black Ocean in 2004 to address this need. “We set out with a strong, simple visual identity and attention to detail,” he says. “I think our belief and commitment in the work, and a little luck, helped us quickly build an enthusiastic and dedicated readership.”

Today Black Ocean publishes fiction, nonfiction, and literature in translation alongside its poetry titles. Its Moon Country series “aims to widen the field of contemporary Korean poetry available in English translation, but also to challenge orientalist, neocolonial, and national literature discourses,” and an essay collection series titled Undercurrents brings a poet’s “lyric attention to language” to the form. This year Black Ocean will release three works in translation, as well as Kristina Marie Darling’s Silent Refusal: Essays on Contemporary Feminist Writing, Nathan Hoks’s poetry collection Nests in Air, and Zachary Schomburg’s Fjords, vol. II. Because of the press’s focus on new voices, “many people simply seek out ‘the next Black Ocean book,’” says Stucky. “It’s incredible that people trust us to help them discover their next favorite poetry title.” Black Ocean accepts submissions year-round via e-mail and does not charge a reading fee.

 

 

Small Press Points: Clash Books

by

Staff

2.17.21

The titles of Clash Books are by turns Gothic and playful and nervy, but they all share one quality: They must be spellbinding. Based in Troy, New York, and founded as a media website that evolved into a book publisher in 2017, Clash Books issues about twenty titles a year, an eclectic mix of art books, poetry, nonfiction, and fiction—“really, anything that excites us,” say editor in chief Leza Cantoral and managing editor Christoph Paul. “A big mission is to challenge genre expectations as well as to bring together a diversity of voices.”

This year the press will release titles as varied as Aaron Carnes’s pop-criticism apologia In Defense of Ska and Kevin Sampsell’s collage and poetry book I Made an Accident, alongside literary fiction and “a novel about waterfall goddesses, a trans fairy tale young adult novella, lots of fun and dark poetry, and some quality literary horror,” say the editors. Paul says he knows he has found the next Clash book when reading a submission if he has that “feeling you get when you hear a new song that you have to listen to again right away.” He adds, “I know it’s the next book when the middle is as strong as the beginning.” Clash is open for submissions year-round via e-mail and does not charge a reading fee. 

Small Press Points: Threadsuns

by

Staff

12.16.20

A new teaching press based at High Point University in North Carolina, Threadsuns draws its name and its vision from the title of a poem by Paul Celan. In the poem as translated by Pierre Joris, “Threadsuns” refers to “songs to sing beyond / mankind,” and it is to those songs that editor and publisher Michael Flatt hopes the press can offer a home. Flatt, who teaches creative writing at High Point, launched the press in early 2020 with the vision of providing student assistants with the kind of hands-on publishing experience that so inspired him as an MFA student—and that expanded his sense of global literature and the literary community. The press plans to publish three volumes a year, one each in the genres of poetry, prose, and work in translation.

“Our inclinations lean toward experimental work that maintains a connection to human experience,” says Flatt. Threadsuns released its first title, Brian Henry’s collection Permanent State, in October, and Ryoko Sekiguchi’s lyric essay The Present Voice, translated by Lindsay Turner, will follow. While getting Threadsuns off the ground amid the pandemic has been challenging, it has also underscored the press’s ambitions to engender connection and inspire a new generation of editors. “Permanent State, while not written during the pandemic, really speaks to the dynamics of power and powerlessness that one feels right now. The press itself is like that for me,” says Flatt. “I’m doing something, which is great, but also, you have to question what it actually does in the world. How can you make it more effective, more significant? And for me, that’s where the teaching comes in. If I can pass on this practice to others, teach them how to create community through publishing, then the project has some meaningful agency.” Threadsuns is open for submissions via e-mail year-round.

Small Press Points: FlowerSong Press

by

Staff

10.7.20

Edward Vidaurre, publisher and editor in chief of FlowerSong Press, describes the press’s authors as “an all-star team of healers” who are “not only invested in self but also community.” Founded in 2011 in McAllen, Texas, as VAO Publishing, FlowerSong “nurtures essential verse from, about, and through the borderlands,” championing writers from the United States, Latin America, and beyond. The press publishes poetry and prose, as well as titles for children and young adults in partnership with Juventud Press. New releases from FlowerSong include Dreaming With Mariposas by Sonia Gutiérrez, a magical bildungsroman in vignettes, and Luz at Midnight by Marisol Cortez, the “story of an ill-timed love that unfolds in the time of climate change.” Good Cop/Bad Cop, an anthology of art and writing responding to police brutality, is among the titles set for publication in 2021. An abiding commitment to both its readers and writers steers all facets of the press’s work. “The authors of FlowerSong know I push hard for them,” says Vidaurre. “For those who pick up a book from us, I want them to feel that these living words have been custom-made just for them in a beautiful book.” Vidaurre and his team also prioritize timely responses to submitters. “I read for the future of my community, my people that have been underrepresented,” says Vidaurre of seeking out new work for the press. “I want to read and say, ‘I see influences of Julio Cortázar, Allen Ginsberg, Miguel Hernández, Amiri Baraka, Gloria Anzaldúa,’ and then say, ‘But…this feels original, and there’s a truth here I haven’t read before.’” Submissions are open year-round through the press’s website.

Small Press Points: Vegetarian Alcoholic Press

by

Staff

8.12.20

What makes a book a Vegetarian Alcoholic Press book? “Connectivity and transcendence,” says Freddy La Force, the editor behind the Milwaukee press. Inspired by the city’s vibrant poetry scene, La Force started Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in 2014. “The writers I found myself admiring didn’t have MFAs or literary connections,” says La Force, “and it seemed like there should be more outlets for their work.” More than sixty-five books later, he remains committed to seeking talent outside entrenched hierarchies. La Force prefers that writers forgo cover letters when sending work, and submitting is always free. “You wouldn’t charge someone to apply for a job, and writing is work,” he says. Vegetarian Alcoholic produces twelve books a year, primarily poetry as well as some fiction, drama, art, and comics. The press recently published travis tate’s Maiden, which La Force describes as “insanely cerebral, sexy poems serving common themes . . . through a very playful, loving, queer, Black lens.” And Kelsey Marie Harris’s collection Spit (Verb) in My Mouth, a “singular treasury of gorgeous foul-mouthed gospels,” was released in August. Submissions are open year-round via e-mail. “The name of the press seems to make people want to submit stuff that attempts to be edgy or abrasive for its own sake,” says La Force. “What I’m really looking for are new forms of expression and new concepts of beauty. I think the best way to uplift people, whether from a personal or revolutionary standpoint, is to instill infinite imagination. Send the work you love. The stuff you felt like you had to write, regardless of your confidence in it.”

Small Press Points: A3 Press

I like to think that each chapbook is a journey,” says editor Shaun Levin of the immersive, imaginative volumes he publishes at the A3 Press. Founded in 2019 as an offshoot of the A3 Review and based in London and Madrid, the A3 Press produces between six and ten chapbooks each year, in a mix of prose, poetry, and art.

The press’s trademark is the unusual design of its chapbooks: Each is printed on a single sheet of paper that folds in the style of a map. “I like the fluidity that comes with the map fold, the sense of randomness and serendipity as you move through the chapbook,” says Levin. “You can move through the chapbook any way you want, start anywhere you want. It’s an adventure, a discovery.” Levin recently published poet Sara Eddy’s Tell the Bees, about “beekeeping and dealing with cancer,” and will release Elizabeth Briggs’s Made to Order and Mark Adams’s Peregrinus [Bede’s Walk] later this year. Submissions are open through October 1 via Submittable with a $20 reading fee, which goes toward production and paying the press’s authors. “Send us work that you feel only you could have written,” says Levin. “Deeply personal work that overshares and doesn’t hold back is particularly appealing to us.” 

Small Press Points: Dottir Press

by

Staff

4.8.20

Even though millions of books are published each year, many stories remain either silenced or mistold,” says Jennifer Baumgardner, founder of Dottir Press. A journalist and author for more than two decades, Baumgardner established the press in 2017 on the heels of her tenure as executive director of the Feminist Press, where she “discovered she liked the business side of books as much as she liked the writing side.” When Baumgardner saw that a politically charged children’s book she believed in might not find a home, she created Dottir Press to provide one. (That book, Anastasia Higginbotham’s Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness, is now a Dottir best-seller.) Located in New York City, the press publishes between six and eight works of fiction and nonfiction a year, including both adult and children’s titles. All are “books by feminists, for everyone,” as Dottir’s slogan declares.

“I believe in creating space for people to tell the truth about what has happened to them and to be vulnerable,” says Baumgardner. Forthcoming titles include transgender activist Cooper Lee Bombardier’s debut, Pass With Care (May 2020), a collection of autobiographical writings that explore masculinity, identity, and the body as systems habitually in flux; and Bett Williams’s memoir The Wild Kindness: A Psilocybin Odyssey (September 2020), which Baumgardner says is “funny and a real challenge to those who might colonize Indigenous knowledge of mushrooms.” The press is open for submissions by e-mail year-round. Baumgardner reads manuscripts with an eye for work that is politically engaged and will change its readers: “I love getting behind a book that truly could influence culture in positive ways.”

Small Press Points: The Cupboard Pamphlet

by

Staff

2.12.20

Consider the Cupboard Pamphlet your source for misfit books. “The Cupboard Pamphlet was formed to address the lack of publishing venues for prose chapbooks that are formally strange or conceptually bizarre,” say editors Kelly Dulaney and Todd Seabrook. Founded in 2008 by Adam Peterson and Dave Madden, the press originally printed free, anonymous pamphlets and evolved to concentrate on single-authored chapbooks. “The first of these were tape-bound, designed to be inexpensive and mobile—pocketable,” say Seabrook and Dulaney. Today this feeling of experiment and nerve continues to guide the press as it publishes four prose chapbooks a year by authors including Chanelle Benz, Brian Evenson, and Courtney Maum. Most of these works are thirty to seventy pages in length, although Dulaney and Seabrook avoid placing strictures on submissions.

“We like works that provide play and surprise in terms of form, structure, and language in addition to a sense of emotional sincerity,” they say. Seabrook is based in Cleveland, and Dulaney in Denver; they collaborate via phone calls and e-mail. Dulaney relishes one-on-one work with authors, while Seabrook “enjoys the physicality of the chapbook—designing it, printing it, and seeing it develop on the page.” All of the titles produced by the Cupboard Pamphlet are selected through an annual online contest with a submission fee of $20; the 2020 contest will run March 1 through May 1. This year Cupboard will publish 2019 contest winner Lia Woodall’s Remove to Play, “a game-based, nonfiction work about the spaces left open in the wake of a suicide” as well as books by J. S. DeYoung and Thomas Israel Hopkins and a coauthored work by Kara Dorris and Gwendolyn Paradice.

Small Press Points: Trembling Pillow Press

by

Staff

12.11.19

Poetry can change your life, and it doesn’t happen on the page; it happens in the rooms and places where poetry connects you to people who change how you are in the world,” says Megan Burns, publisher of Trembling Pillow Press in New Orleans. This sense of poetry as a means of community animates all of the press’s work. Trembling Pillow was established in the late nineties with an initial focus on making broadsides and occasional chapbooks but turned to producing full-length poetry books in 2006. Today Trembling Pillow publishes four or five poetry titles a year, about half of which are debut collections.

Burns approaches these editorial collaborations with first-time authors with particular care. “I am giving someone an experience that becomes the basis for future relationships in the writing world, and I want them to have a high bar,” she says, noting the years of devoted work that goes into a project before it ever reaches the press and a publisher’s obligation to treat a work with that same devotion. Trembling Pillow’s sensibility is eclectic—its titles vary from “feminist manifesto to punk rock memoir to collaborative eco-poetics to lyrical experimentation or rural horror manifestations”—but its poets share a willingness to take risks and to surprise. Among the press’s 2020 titles are Marty Cain’s The Wound Is (Not) Real: A Memoir, a hybrid text that mines the experiences of the author’s adolescence in Vermont; Erin M. Bertram’s It’s Not a Lonely World, about queerness and cancer; and Jenny Sadre-Orafai and Anne Champion’s Book of Levitations, a “modern-day poetic spell book.” Trembling Pillow is open for submissions year-round via Submittable; a $15 reading fee goes directly into producing more books and is waived in the month of December.

Small Press Points: Unnamed Press

by

Staff

10.9.19

Unnamed Press is an object lesson in thinking globally, acting locally. C. P. Heiser and Olivia Taylor Smith, two former staffers at the Los Angeles Review of Books, founded the press in 2014, drawing inspiration from the flourishing independent publishing scene in L.A.—and a sense that there was more work to do. “We saw that we could bring something different to the table, particularly through our initial focus on international voices and debut authors,” says Smith. Today the press publishes ten to twelve books each year, about half fiction and half nonfiction. Notable recent titles include Adam Popescu’s Nima (2019), in which a young Sherpa woman disguised as a man leads journalists to the foot of Mount Everest, and Man Booker Prize–winning translator Jennifer Croft’s memoir of sisterhood, Homesick (2019). Esmé Weijun Wang’s debut novel, The Border of Paradise (2016), remains a best-seller.

What does it take to curate such a dynamic, international list? “We travel a lot!” says Heiser. Favorite venues for connecting with new talent include the Dhaka Lit Fest in Bangladesh, the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the American Literary Translators Association’s annual conference. “We are a story-driven press that’s attracted to underrepresented or marginalized voices—not as a rule, but simply because, as editors, that’s what excites us,” says Heiser, pointing to Nima and The Border of Paradise as good examples. “Both explore important issues through some really surprising and refreshing points of view, which for lots of reasons bigger publishers found too challenging or risky.” Unnamed Press accepts queries and submissions via e-mail, and is open year-round.

Small Press Points: Acre Books

by

Staff

8.14.19

As the founding editor of the Cincinnati Review, Nicola Mason has a strong track record of spotting talented writers early in their careers. Under her leadership the review published the early work of fiction writers Caitlin Horrocks and Jamie Quatro and poets Jill Osier and Mai Der Vang. As Mason explained to Cincinnati magazine in June, after watching these writers and other contributors go on to win prestigious prizes and publish books, she thought, “We’re becoming talent scouts for everyone else; why can’t we become talent scouts for ourselves?”

So in 2017 Mason founded Acre Books, an imprint of the University of Cincinnati Press, where, along with poetry series editor Lisa Ampleman, she publishes two poetry collections, two novels, and two story collections each year. The press also welcomes hybrid forms. “I’ve always felt the boundaries separating genres and disciplines to be artificial,” says Mason. “Why shake one’s finger at innovation?” Mason also hopes to publish literary nonfiction but hasn’t yet found a book that’s the right fit. “I find a lot of creative nonfiction has an ‘all about me’ quality,” she says. “We want work that is grounded in self but that travels beyond it.” In October, Acre will publish Faylita Hicks’s poetry debut, HoodWitch, which Mason describes as “an absolute knockout full of power, pain, beauty, and magick.” Submissions in all genres are open via the press’s website; writers should include a brief description of the manuscript and ten sample pages. There is no reading fee.

 

 

Small Press Points: Cooper Dillon Books

by

Staff

6.12.19

A poem can exist in a specific cultural or emotional moment, but it can also sustain and be revisited over and over again,” says poet Adam Deutsch, the publisher of Cooper Dillon Books (www.cooperdillon.com), a ten-year-old press dedicated to “the values that make poetry timeless.” Deutsch and assistant editor Christine Bryant Cohen run the press from San Diego and Seattle, publishing one or two books a year. So far they have released six full-length poetry collections and eight chapbooks by writers such as Jill Alexander Essbaum, Melody S. Gee, and William Matthews.

Cooper Dillon’s most recent titles are Linda Dove’s chapbook Fearn (2019), a meditation on fear, and Mónica Gomery’s debut collection, Here Is the Night and the Night on the Road (2018), which Lillian-Yvonne Bertram says is “an exquisite study in the suddenness of numbered days and the radiant pain of living with love ‘tumbling forth.’” The press eschews contests and instead welcomes submissions year-round via Submittable with a $10 reading fee, which is waived if you purchase one of the press’s titles. Deutsch believes standard book-contest entry fees, typically $20 or $25, are too high and prefers the press to “remain open for when a writer feels that the time is right to submit.” He adds, “We see poetry as community, not competition.”

Small Press Points: BkMk Press

by

Staff

4.10.19

In the hardscrabble world of small presses, a ten-year anniversary is a major achievement, so BkMk Press, which is approaching its fiftieth, has much to celebrate. Founded in 1971 as an outlet for Midwestern writers, the press first published poetry chapbooks out of a local branch of the Johnson County Library in Kansas. Today BkMk’s office is located at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, where editor in chief Robert Stewart also oversees the press’s affiliated magazine, New Letters, and the radio show New Letters on the Air. BkMk annually releases about six full-length collections of poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction; it has published more than eighty titles by local, national, and international writers. “Book publishing continues to be dominated by the East Coast, but BkMk gives Missouri and the Midwest a seat at the publishing table,” says managing editor Ben Furnish. In July BkMk will publish Lorraine M. López’s story collection Postcards From the Gerund State, and in the fall it will release Beverly Burch’s poetry collection Latter Days of Eve and Jennifer Wisner Kelly’s story collection, Stone Skimmers. In honor of BkMk’s origins as a chapbook publisher, the editors plan to launch a chapbook competition in 2020. The press currently hosts two other annual contests: the John Ciardi Prize and the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize, given for a poetry collection and a story collection, respectively. Both competitions open on June 1 and include a $1,000 prize and publication. General submissions are open via Submittable and postal mail until June 30.

 

 

Small Press Points: BOAAT Press

by

Staff

2.13.19

When poet Sean Shearer started BOAAT Press in 2014, he wanted to combine his two loves: poetry and book arts. “Our aim was to create something beautiful as well as meaningful by publishing emerging writers and housing their words inside our signature books,” says managing editor Catherine Bresner, who joined the staff in 2015. That signature style is part of what has set BOAAT apart from the beginning: The press’s first titles, all chapbooks made from materials such as banana peels, seaweed, Spanish moss, cotton linters, and construction paper, resemble tidal waves, the seashore, or other nautical scenes. The editors even constructed some books out of wood to look like miniature docks, complete with fishing net and seashells. “These books don’t belong on bookshelves,” writes Shearer on the press’s website. “They belong out in the open, plopped on desks and coffee tables to turn heads and wow anyone in the room.” Today, in addition to handmade books, BOAAT publishes one traditionally bound chapbook and up to two full-length books each year through its two annual contests. The press also publishes BOAAT Journal, edited by poet sam sax, which has published up-and-coming poets including Cortney Lamar Charleston, Jameson Fitzpatrick, Emily Skaja, and Chelsea Dingman. The press’s forthcoming titles include Alison Stagner’s The Thing That Brought the Shadow Here, which Nick Flynn selected as winner of the 2018 book prize, and Alycia Pirmohamed’s Faces That Fled the Wind, which Camille Rankine chose as winner of the 2018 chapbook prize. Submissions to BOAAT Journal are open year-round; submissions for both the chapbook prize and book prize are open during the month of April.

Small Press Points: Spork Press

by

Staff

12.12.18

“To feature the work that amazed us,” Richard Siken says when asked why he and Drew Burk started the literary magazine Spork in 2000. “A parallel goal was to show that it was possible to start and run a magazine, and eventually a press, without external or institutional support and to maybe start chipping away at the notions of gates and gatekeepers. If you’re not asking for money or permission, then nobody can tell you no.” For the past nineteen years Siken and Burk have thus forged their own path through the literary landscape and in 2010, with the help of Jake Levine, Andrew Shuta, and Joel Smith, expanded the magazine into Spork Press, which now publishes chapbooks and full-length books of poetry and fiction. The editors, who are “invested in voice-driven work that evokes rather than recounts,” make all the press’s books by hand in Tucson, Arizona. “We’re looking for narrators that inhabit and enact,” the editors say on the website. “We want speakers that can render their investment in the subject matter.” Spork has published books of poetry by Kazim Ali, Sophia Le Fraga, and Ariana Reines, as well as books of fiction by Casey Hannan, Kathleen Rooney, and Colin Winnette. Recent titles include Jennifer Juneau’s novel, ÜberChef USA, and two poetry collections, Rae Gouirand’s Glass Is Glass Water Is Water and David Welch’s Everyone Who Is Dead. Looking ahead, the editors are experimenting with new production techniques—blind stamping, full-bleed wraparound covers, and designs that use overlapping transparent inks, for example—and are considering printing machine-made editions to meet demand. Spork will be open for submissions in the summer.

Small Press Points: Unicorn Press

by

Staff

10.10.18

After four years as an apprentice at poetry publisher Unicorn Press, Andrew Saulters took the reins from Alan Brilliant in 2016, fifty years after Brilliant founded the press in Santa Barbara, California. Saulters, who edits and binds the press’s books himself in Greensboro, North Carolina, seeks to carry on the editorial vision of Brilliant and his longtime partner, Teo Savory, who died in 1989. “I’ve tried to follow Al’s editorial spirit in looking at publishing as a way that work enters the cultural commons,” says Saulters. “It’s not enough that the publisher like the work, but the work should also add something to what is already available to readers.” Unicorn Press publishes four to six books of poetry each year, at least two of which are full-length collections, and counts Robert Bly and Muriel Rukeyser among its many authors. The press recently published a haiku collection by the Carolina African American Writers Collective, One Window’s Light, edited by Lenard D. Moore, and in November will release Lynn Otto’s first book, Real Daughter, and Wayne Johns’s Antipsalms. Otto and Johns were selected from the press’s first-book competition, held annually in the spring; the press is open to general submissions of full-length and chapbook-length poetry collections from October through December.

Small Press Points: 7.13 Books

by

Staff

6.13.18

July 13 holds special importance for writer and publisher Leland Cheuk. Not only is it the day that, in 2014, he found out his life had been saved by a successful bone marrow transplant from a stranger, but it’s also the day that his first novel, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, was picked up by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. Two years later, on the same day, Thought Catalog sent him an offer for his first story collection, Letters From Dinosaurs. So when Cheuk decided to start his own small press in 2016, he didn’t hesitate to name it 7.13 Books (713books.com). Publishing four to five fiction titles a year from debut writers, the press seeks to offer “a publishing experience that’s respectful to and even reverent of first-time authors.” Cheuk wants the press, which is located in New York City, to avoid the pitfalls of both traditional publishing houses—which he describes as elitist and at risk of publishing the same kinds of books—and indie presses, which he admits are often understaffed and unresponsive. Cheuk replies to each submission within four to eight weeks and offers brief constructive feedback even for those he rejects. The writing—not a writer’s pedigree—matters to him most. In July, 7.13 Books will publish Willie Davis’s Nightwolf, about a seventeen-year-old dropout whose brother has gone missing, and in the fall the press will release Jenn Stroud Rossmann’s The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh, about a working-class family in California’s Silicon Valley. Cheuk says both novels have wit and humor, noting that his own taste leans toward literary comedies. Submissions of story collections and novels are open until November 1 via Submittable.

Small Press Points: Bottlecap Press

by

Staff

4.11.18

“To put it in Hollywood terms,” says Bottlecap Press (bottlecap.press) founder and editor C. A. Mullins, “we think of ourselves more as producers than directors.” Established in Skagway, Alaska, in 2014, the self-described “millennial publishing outfit,” now based in central Missouri, is dedicated to putting its authors first by allowing them more creative control over their books.“Our philosophy is that we’re the ones working for the authors, not the other way around,” says Mullins. The press, which publishes one to two chapbooks and full-length books of poetry and fiction every month, offers editorial and design guidance more as “suggestions rather than mandates,” says Mullins. The resulting books, hand-printed by the editors, are diverse in design and aesthetic. Recent and forthcoming titles include Sarah Kennedy’s debut poetry collection, How to Find a Husband (April) and Andrew Duncan Worthington’s story collection A Very Small Forest Fire (June). In addition to traditional books, Bottlecap Press also welcomes mixed-media work: Kennedy’s collection, for example, incorporates photographs from her parents’ personal archives and is part of a larger performance project in conversation with Wendy Stehling’s 1985 book, How to Find a Husband in 30 Days. Mullins also plans to launch digital multimedia projects in the future, including a YouTube channel that will feature poetry, music, film, storytelling, performance art, and animation, and the editors have recently begun looking for artists to illustrate some of the press’s older chapbooks. The press accepts submissions in poetry, fiction, art, and video year-round via e-mail at bottlecappress@gmail.com.

Small Press Points: Gold Wake Press

by

Staff

2.14.18

Every small press faces the choice of whether or not to charge submission fees, which can help keep a press afloat but can also exclude writers who don’t have the money to submit. Some publishers, such as Atelier26, Sundress Publications, and Gold Wake Press (goldwake.com), offer an alternative: A writer can submit a manuscript after purchasing a book from the press’s catalogue. While the cost of purchasing a book will surely still prohibit some writers from submitting, the model not only ensures that writers will get something in return for their submissions, but that they will be more familiar with the press’s aesthetic before sending their work. “We found the usual model of requiring a submission fee to be unethical,” says Nick Courtright, who runs Gold Wake Press with writer Kyle McCord. “We’d also heard so many stories of presses not really doing much to sell books once they were published, as if the whole point of the press enterprise was not to sell books but to elicit submission fees. Because we want to support our authors, this is a great way to get their books into the hands of prospective readers.” Located in Austin, Texas, and Des Moines, the press publishes about eight titles a year across genres. “We’ve done crazy poetry books, serious poetry books, novels, illustrated memoirs, short story collections, and flash fiction,” says Courtright. The editors look for work that combines “daring content with meticulous attention to form.” Recent titles, such as Erin Stalcup’s novel, Every Living Species, and Frances Cannon’s graphic memoir, The Highs and Lows of Shapeshift Ma and Big-Little Frank, have blurred the line between image and word, while others, such as Glenn Shaheen’s short story collection, Carnivalia, have combined poetry and prose. In the fall the press launched a triannual journal, Gold Wake Live, which is open for submissions in all genres year-round via Submittable. For those who have purchased a Gold Wake Press title, the press is open to full-length manuscripts via Submittable from March 1 to April 15.

Small Press Points: Saddle Road Press

by

Staff

12.13.17

On a plateau at the center of the island of Hawai’i, Saddle Road runs between two nearly fourteen-thousand-foot volcanoes, one of which is active. “It is a strange, isolated, and terribly beautiful land of black lava and vast light,” says Ruth Thompson, the publisher of Saddle Road Press (saddleroadpress.com), founded in Hilo, Hawai’i, in 2011. A similar description might apply to the style of work that Thompson and her team of editors look to publish at Saddle Road Press. Michael Collins’s poetry collection Appearances (November 2017), for example, is a meditation on nature not as “some place you visit / some museum to nostalgia through,” but rather, Thompson says, as “a place of meeting and confrontation between nature and civilization, art and subject, consciousness and the unconscious, life and death.” Jessamyn Smith’s hybrid prose and poetry collection Gilgamesh/Wilderness (March 2018), a follow-up to her 2016 novel-in-stories The Inugami Mochi, addresses mythology, nature, and grief. Gillian Barlow’s essay collection, Nomad’s Home (February 2018), “interweaves the author’s experience in designing aboriginal housing with the ancient Japanese text ki, aikido, thoughts on the idea of ‘house,’ a long-buried family secret, Australian bars, racism, and the idea of translation,” says Thompson. The press publishes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, though the editors are specifically seeking collections of lyric essays and hybrid prose and poetry. The editors also plan to launch a chapbook series of work from or about islands in the Pacific. Submissions of full-length manuscripts are open until January 31 via Submittable.

Small Press Points: Holy Cow! Press

by

Staff

8.16.17

The name Holy Cow! Press, complete with exclamation point, came to publisher Jim Perlman in a dream. Forty years ago that dream became an independent press, which today boasts a catalogue of more than 125 poetry collections, novels, story collections, memoirs, biographies, and anthologies. Perlman, who runs the press out of his home in Duluth, Minnesota, is committed to publishing the work of writers living in the Midwest, a “territory traditionally ignored by larger indie publishers,” he says. The press has published the work of writers such as Minnesota poet laureate Joyce Sutphen, poet Louis Jenkins, young adult writer Jane Yolen, and the late Brenda Ueland. Holy Cow! Press releases three to five books each year, 40 percent of which Perlman estimates are poetry collections. To celebrate the press’s fortieth anniversary this year, Perlman has organized readings in Duluth; in October the press will also participate in the Iowa City Book Festival and the Twin Cities Book Festival, where Rain Taxi will hold a tribute event for the press with readings, a Q&A, and a book signing. Holy Cow! Press will also publish two new titles this fall: Subtle Variations and Other Stories (October) by Minneapolis author Miriam Karmel and Winds & Currents (November), a book of retold and illustrated Native American stories by Duluth author and artist Joan Henrik. Submissions are open year-round; send a query via e-mail or postal mail.

 

Small Press Points: Sibling Rivalry Press

by

Staff

2.15.17

“Our mission is to publish work that disturbs and enraptures,” says Bryan Borland, publisher of the Little Rock, Arkansas–based Sibling Rivalry Press (siblingrivalrypress.com). “The press has always positioned itself as a stage and a microphone for anyone who is ‘other’…. Any time we’ve been tempted to move toward more mainstream projects, the world has always had a way of reminding us that our purpose is to build bridges. I know firsthand that when you find someone whose voice makes you feel less alone, it can save your life.” Since founding Sibling Rivalry Press in 2010, Borland has consistently delivered on that mission. He and editor Seth Pennington have championed the work of many LGBTQIA authors, publishing the early work of up-and-coming poets such as Ocean Vuong, sam sax, Christopher Soto, and Saeed Jones, and also recently launched the Undocupoets Fellowship, given to undocumented or previously undocumented poets, to help defray the cost of poetry-related submission fees. And in January the press published If You Can Hear This: Poetry in Protest of an American Inauguration, an anthology of work by seventy poets responding to the recent presidential election. The press also publishes three literary magazines: Adrienne, a journal of poetry by queer women; Assaracus, a journal of poetry by gay men; and Callisto, a journal of queer fiction. The press recently published Kaveh Akbar’s chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, and will also put out books from poets Franny Choi and Sarah Browning later this year. While Borland and Pennington publish work mostly by LGBTQIA authors and focus primarily on poetry, they are open to work of all genres from writers of all identities and sexual orientations. Manuscripts of any length can be submitted from March 1 through June 1.

Small Press Points: Aunt Lute Books

by

Staff

6.14.17

We’ve been publishing revolutionary queer women of color for thirty-five years,” write the editors of Aunt Lute Books on their website, “and we don’t plan to stop any time soon.” Editors Barb Wieser and Joan Pinkvoss founded Aunt Lute in Iowa City in 1982 to create opportunities for writers who they believed were excluded from mainstream publishing and feminism in the eighties. They have since published more than fifty books by over thirty writers, nearly all women of color, including feminist activists and writers Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Judy Grahn. The press has also published several anthologies of work by marginalized communities, including Filipina and Filipina American writers (Babaylan, 2000) and South Asian women in the United States (Our Feet Walk the Sky, 1993). Now based in San Francisco, the nonprofit press publishes two to four books each year of mostly fiction and nonfiction. Forthcoming titles include a reprint of Juliana Delgado Lopera’s Cuéntamelo: Oral Histories by LGBT Latino Immigrants in the fall and a critical edition of Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza next spring. Although the editors are particularly interested in work by queer women of color, submissions of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry by women of all backgrounds (to be considered for inclusion in future anthologies) are open year-round via postal mail. 

Small Press Points: Twisted Road Publications

by

Staff

4.12.17

The whole truth requires complex, multilayered stories,” says Joan Leggitt, publisher of Twisted Road Publications, “and not just stories relating the known world as the author sees it, but also stories of what might be, as we imagine our best and worst selves.” Guided by this principle, Leggitt founded Twisted Road in 2014 with the financial backing of a friend who was going through the final stages of a terminal illness. Based in Tallahassee, Florida, the press publishes three to four titles of fiction and nonfiction each year. Leggitt, who has worked as a book distributor and editor, finds few books challenge mainstream culture, and says Twisted Road favors “books that depict the shadowy places where the disenfranchised dwell.” She adds: “It seems as though corporate media is convinced that no one wants to hear from people with lower incomes and less education because it is generally assumed they have nothing interesting to say, nothing to teach us.” The press has published books that push against that stereotype, including Connie May Fowler’s memoir A Million Fragile Bones (April) about the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in 2010; Tricia Booker’s memoir, The Place of Peace and Crickets (March), about her experience adopting children from Asia and Central America; and James Carpenter’s novel, No Place to Pray (September 2016), about two homeless alcoholics. Twisted Road is currently open to submissions via e-mail (submissions@twistedroadpublications.com). 

Small Press Points: Phoneme Media

After noticing that a lot of exciting international literature wasn’t reaching English-language readers—particularly books from lesser-known countries like Burundi and Mongolia, and those written in languages like Isthmus Zapotec and Uyghur—translators David Shook and Brian Hewes decided to do something about it. In 2013 they launched Phoneme Media (phonememedia.org), a nonprofit publisher “dedicated to promoting cross-cultural understanding, connecting people and ideas through translated books and films.”  Phoneme MediaBased in Los Angeles and funded by PEN Center USA, the press publishes twelve books of translated poetry and fiction each year, and also produces literary films—video poems, paratextual films, and short documentaries—that feature the press’s authors and translators. A look at just two months’ worth of Phoneme titles is a trip across several continents: In December the press released Smooth-Talking Dog, a poetry collection by Mexican writer Roberto Castillo Udiarte—also known as “the Godfather of Tijuana’s counterculture”—translated from the Spanish by Anthony Seidman. Richard Ali A Mutu’s novel Mr. Fix-It, translated from the Lingala language of the Democratic Republic of the Congo by Bienvenu Sene Mongaba and Sara Sene, was also released in December. This month the press publishes its first Icelandic translation, Cold Moons by Magnús Sigursson, translated by Meg Matich; as well as The Conspiracy, a thriller by exiled Venezuelan novelist Israel Centeno, translated from the Spanish by Guillermo Parra. The Conspiracy is the second book in Phoneme’s City of Asylum series, which features works by exiled writers receiving sanctuary in the United States. Phoneme’s general submissions are open year-round, and can be sent via e-mail to submissions@phonememedia.org. The press is particularly interested in books by women and those translated from non-Indo-European languages.

Small Press Points: Platypus Press

by

Staff

10.11.17

When Michelle Tudor and Peter Barnfather started Platypus Press in 2015, they considered themselves a bit of an odd fit, since neither had worked at a press or published much of their own work. But with a love of reading and a willingness to improvise and learn on the job, the pair launched the independent press to “unearth innovative contemporary poetry and prose from a broad variety of voices and experiences.” Two years later, Platypus Press has already released more than a dozen books, launched the online literary journal Wildness, and published a chapbook series through which it put out a poetry chapbook every day for twenty-four days. The press publishes mostly poetry but also nonfiction and fiction—next year Tudor says Platypus will make its “first proper lunge into the world of fiction” with a series of digital-only stories from five thousand to fifteen thousand words each. Based in Shropshire, England, Platypus mostly publishes writers from the United States and United Kingdom but has also released books by authors from Singapore, New Zealand, and India. The press’s first titles showcased the work of younger poets, many of whom are active on Tumblr, but Tudor and Barnfather have since expanded their catalogue. “As a press we are interested in all aspects of a poet’s career,” says Tudor. “We believe in giving a voice to poets at all stages of their writing journey.” Recent titles show this range, such as Shuly Cawood’s debut memoir, The Going and Goodbye, and a book of selected poems by L. G. Corey, who has been writing poetry for more than seventy years. In November Platypus will release A Portrait in Blues: Poems of the Body, an anthology that explores gender, identity, and the nature of the body. Submissions of full-length manuscripts and stories for the digital fiction shorts series are open year-round via e-mail.

Small Press Points: Platypus Press

by

Staff

10.11.17

When Michelle Tudor and Peter Barnfather started Platypus Press in 2015, they considered themselves a bit of an odd fit, since neither had worked at a press or published much of their own work. But with a love of reading and a willingness to improvise and learn on the job, the pair launched the independent press to “unearth innovative contemporary poetry and prose from a broad variety of voices and experiences.” Two years later, Platypus Press has already released more than a dozen books, launched the online literary journal Wildness, and published a chapbook series through which it put out a poetry chapbook every day for twenty-four days. The press publishes mostly poetry but also nonfiction and fiction—next year Tudor says Platypus will make its “first proper lunge into the world of fiction” with a series of digital-only stories from five thousand to fifteen thousand words each. Based in Shropshire, England, Platypus mostly publishes writers from the United States and United Kingdom but has also released books by authors from Singapore, New Zealand, and India. The press’s first titles showcased the work of younger poets, many of whom are active on Tumblr, but Tudor and Barnfather have since expanded their catalogue. “As a press we are interested in all aspects of a poet’s career,” says Tudor. “We believe in giving a voice to poets at all stages of their writing journey.” Recent titles show this range, such as Shuly Cawood’s debut memoir, The Going and Goodbye, and a book of selected poems by L. G. Corey, who has been writing poetry for more than seventy years. In November Platypus will release A Portrait in Blues: Poems of the Body, an anthology that explores gender, identity, and the nature of the body. Submissions of full-length manuscripts and stories for the digital fiction shorts series are open year-round via e-mail.

Small Press Points: Saddle Road Press

by

Staff

12.13.17

On a plateau at the center of the island of Hawai’i, Saddle Road runs between two nearly fourteen-thousand-foot volcanoes, one of which is active. “It is a strange, isolated, and terribly beautiful land of black lava and vast light,” says Ruth Thompson, the publisher of Saddle Road Press (saddleroadpress.com), founded in Hilo, Hawai’i, in 2011. A similar description might apply to the style of work that Thompson and her team of editors look to publish at Saddle Road Press. Michael Collins’s poetry collection Appearances (November 2017), for example, is a meditation on nature not as “some place you visit / some museum to nostalgia through,” but rather, Thompson says, as “a place of meeting and confrontation between nature and civilization, art and subject, consciousness and the unconscious, life and death.” Jessamyn Smith’s hybrid prose and poetry collection Gilgamesh/Wilderness (March 2018), a follow-up to her 2016 novel-in-stories The Inugami Mochi, addresses mythology, nature, and grief. Gillian Barlow’s essay collection, Nomad’s Home (February 2018), “interweaves the author’s experience in designing aboriginal housing with the ancient Japanese text ki, aikido, thoughts on the idea of ‘house,’ a long-buried family secret, Australian bars, racism, and the idea of translation,” says Thompson. The press publishes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, though the editors are specifically seeking collections of lyric essays and hybrid prose and poetry. The editors also plan to launch a chapbook series of work from or about islands in the Pacific. Submissions of full-length manuscripts are open until January 31 via Submittable.

Small Press Points: Gold Wake Press

by

Staff

2.14.18

Every small press faces the choice of whether or not to charge submission fees, which can help keep a press afloat but can also exclude writers who don’t have the money to submit. Some publishers, such as Atelier26, Sundress Publications, and Gold Wake Press (goldwake.com), offer an alternative: A writer can submit a manuscript after purchasing a book from the press’s catalogue. While the cost of purchasing a book will surely still prohibit some writers from submitting, the model not only ensures that writers will get something in return for their submissions, but that they will be more familiar with the press’s aesthetic before sending their work. “We found the usual model of requiring a submission fee to be unethical,” says Nick Courtright, who runs Gold Wake Press with writer Kyle McCord. “We’d also heard so many stories of presses not really doing much to sell books once they were published, as if the whole point of the press enterprise was not to sell books but to elicit submission fees. Because we want to support our authors, this is a great way to get their books into the hands of prospective readers.” Located in Austin, Texas, and Des Moines, the press publishes about eight titles a year across genres. “We’ve done crazy poetry books, serious poetry books, novels, illustrated memoirs, short story collections, and flash fiction,” says Courtright. The editors look for work that combines “daring content with meticulous attention to form.” Recent titles, such as Erin Stalcup’s novel, Every Living Species, and Frances Cannon’s graphic memoir, The Highs and Lows of Shapeshift Ma and Big-Little Frank, have blurred the line between image and word, while others, such as Glenn Shaheen’s short story collection, Carnivalia, have combined poetry and prose. In the fall the press launched a triannual journal, Gold Wake Live, which is open for submissions in all genres year-round via Submittable. For those who have purchased a Gold Wake Press title, the press is open to full-length manuscripts via Submittable from March 1 to April 15.

Small Press Points: BatCat Press

by

Staff

8.15.18

“In the beginning BatCat was truly an experiment,” says Deanna Baringer, the managing editor and supervising teacher of BatCat Press. “I didn’t know if high school kids would be capable of, let alone interested in, publishing and bookmaking.” Nearly ten years later BatCat is no longer an experiment but a full-fledged indie press run by a group of about ten students at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland, Pennsylvania. The students do all the editing, printing, and binding by hand and publish two or three books per year, mostly poetry with some fiction and nonfiction titles, by debut and established writers alike. In June the press released Dustin Nightingale’s poetry chapbook, Ghost Woodpecker—which Baringer calls a “terse but punchy collection”—that was printed entirely via a handset letterpress, and Jessica Poli’s poetry collection Canyons. “The poems are quirky little lines that stick with you and make you think,” says Alexa Bocek, a BatCat editor from the class of 2019. The students work together to select the final manuscripts, a process they approach with great care. “Not only does it come down to whether or not the piece is good, but a lot of it is also whether it works for our audience and if there are aspects we can draw from to create design elements,” says Sarah Bett, who graduated in the spring. “Going through hundreds of manuscripts, it could become easy to just skim them and quickly decide that you didn’t like it. I had to grow more patient and able to look at each piece through a new perspective.” BatCat is open to submissions of full-length and chapbook-length manuscripts in any genre year-round via Submittable, though the editors read mostly in the fall. There is no age minimum to submit.

Small Press Points: Bottlecap Press

by

Staff

4.11.18

“To put it in Hollywood terms,” says Bottlecap Press (bottlecap.press) founder and editor C. A. Mullins, “we think of ourselves more as producers than directors.” Established in Skagway, Alaska, in 2014, the self-described “millennial publishing outfit,” now based in central Missouri, is dedicated to putting its authors first by allowing them more creative control over their books.“Our philosophy is that we’re the ones working for the authors, not the other way around,” says Mullins. The press, which publishes one to two chapbooks and full-length books of poetry and fiction every month, offers editorial and design guidance more as “suggestions rather than mandates,” says Mullins. The resulting books, hand-printed by the editors, are diverse in design and aesthetic. Recent and forthcoming titles include Sarah Kennedy’s debut poetry collection, How to Find a Husband (April) and Andrew Duncan Worthington’s story collection A Very Small Forest Fire (June). In addition to traditional books, Bottlecap Press also welcomes mixed-media work: Kennedy’s collection, for example, incorporates photographs from her parents’ personal archives and is part of a larger performance project in conversation with Wendy Stehling’s 1985 book, How to Find a Husband in 30 Days. Mullins also plans to launch digital multimedia projects in the future, including a YouTube channel that will feature poetry, music, film, storytelling, performance art, and animation, and the editors have recently begun looking for artists to illustrate some of the press’s older chapbooks. The press accepts submissions in poetry, fiction, art, and video year-round via e-mail at bottlecappress@gmail.com.

Small Press Points: BatCat Press

by

Staff

8.15.18

“In the beginning BatCat was truly an experiment,” says Deanna Baringer, the managing editor and supervising teacher of BatCat Press. “I didn’t know if high school kids would be capable of, let alone interested in, publishing and bookmaking.” Nearly ten years later BatCat is no longer an experiment but a full-fledged indie press run by a group of about ten students at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland, Pennsylvania. The students do all the editing, printing, and binding by hand and publish two or three books per year, mostly poetry with some fiction and nonfiction titles, by debut and established writers alike. In June the press released Dustin Nightingale’s poetry chapbook, Ghost Woodpecker—which Baringer calls a “terse but punchy collection”—that was printed entirely via a handset letterpress, and Jessica Poli’s poetry collection Canyons. “The poems are quirky little lines that stick with you and make you think,” says Alexa Bocek, a BatCat editor from the class of 2019. The students work together to select the final manuscripts, a process they approach with great care. “Not only does it come down to whether or not the piece is good, but a lot of it is also whether it works for our audience and if there are aspects we can draw from to create design elements,” says Sarah Bett, who graduated in the spring. “Going through hundreds of manuscripts, it could become easy to just skim them and quickly decide that you didn’t like it. I had to grow more patient and able to look at each piece through a new perspective.” BatCat is open to submissions of full-length and chapbook-length manuscripts in any genre year-round via Submittable, though the editors read mostly in the fall. There is no age minimum to submit.

Small Press Points: 7.13 Books

by

Staff

6.13.18

July 13 holds special importance for writer and publisher Leland Cheuk. Not only is it the day that, in 2014, he found out his life had been saved by a successful bone marrow transplant from a stranger, but it’s also the day that his first novel, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, was picked up by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. Two years later, on the same day, Thought Catalog sent him an offer for his first story collection, Letters From Dinosaurs. So when Cheuk decided to start his own small press in 2016, he didn’t hesitate to name it 7.13 Books (713books.com). Publishing four to five fiction titles a year from debut writers, the press seeks to offer “a publishing experience that’s respectful to and even reverent of first-time authors.” Cheuk wants the press, which is located in New York City, to avoid the pitfalls of both traditional publishing houses—which he describes as elitist and at risk of publishing the same kinds of books—and indie presses, which he admits are often understaffed and unresponsive. Cheuk replies to each submission within four to eight weeks and offers brief constructive feedback even for those he rejects. The writing—not a writer’s pedigree—matters to him most. In July, 7.13 Books will publish Willie Davis’s Nightwolf, about a seventeen-year-old dropout whose brother has gone missing, and in the fall the press will release Jenn Stroud Rossmann’s The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh, about a working-class family in California’s Silicon Valley. Cheuk says both novels have wit and humor, noting that his own taste leans toward literary comedies. Submissions of story collections and novels are open until November 1 via Submittable.

Small Press Points: Unicorn Press

by

Staff

10.10.18

After four years as an apprentice at poetry publisher Unicorn Press, Andrew Saulters took the reins from Alan Brilliant in 2016, fifty years after Brilliant founded the press in Santa Barbara, California. Saulters, who edits and binds the press’s books himself in Greensboro, North Carolina, seeks to carry on the editorial vision of Brilliant and his longtime partner, Teo Savory, who died in 1989. “I’ve tried to follow Al’s editorial spirit in looking at publishing as a way that work enters the cultural commons,” says Saulters. “It’s not enough that the publisher like the work, but the work should also add something to what is already available to readers.” Unicorn Press publishes four to six books of poetry each year, at least two of which are full-length collections, and counts Robert Bly and Muriel Rukeyser among its many authors. The press recently published a haiku collection by the Carolina African American Writers Collective, One Window’s Light, edited by Lenard D. Moore, and in November will release Lynn Otto’s first book, Real Daughter, and Wayne Johns’s Antipsalms. Otto and Johns were selected from the press’s first-book competition, held annually in the spring; the press is open to general submissions of full-length and chapbook-length poetry collections from October through December.

Small Press Points: BatCat Press

by

Staff

8.15.18

“In the beginning BatCat was truly an experiment,” says Deanna Baringer, the managing editor and supervising teacher of BatCat Press. “I didn’t know if high school kids would be capable of, let alone interested in, publishing and bookmaking.” Nearly ten years later BatCat is no longer an experiment but a full-fledged indie press run by a group of about ten students at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland, Pennsylvania. The students do all the editing, printing, and binding by hand and publish two or three books per year, mostly poetry with some fiction and nonfiction titles, by debut and established writers alike. In June the press released Dustin Nightingale’s poetry chapbook, Ghost Woodpecker—which Baringer calls a “terse but punchy collection”—that was printed entirely via a handset letterpress, and Jessica Poli’s poetry collection Canyons. “The poems are quirky little lines that stick with you and make you think,” says Alexa Bocek, a BatCat editor from the class of 2019. The students work together to select the final manuscripts, a process they approach with great care. “Not only does it come down to whether or not the piece is good, but a lot of it is also whether it works for our audience and if there are aspects we can draw from to create design elements,” says Sarah Bett, who graduated in the spring. “Going through hundreds of manuscripts, it could become easy to just skim them and quickly decide that you didn’t like it. I had to grow more patient and able to look at each piece through a new perspective.” BatCat is open to submissions of full-length and chapbook-length manuscripts in any genre year-round via Submittable, though the editors read mostly in the fall. There is no age minimum to submit.

Small Press Points: Spork Press

by

Staff

12.12.18

“To feature the work that amazed us,” Richard Siken says when asked why he and Drew Burk started the literary magazine Spork in 2000. “A parallel goal was to show that it was possible to start and run a magazine, and eventually a press, without external or institutional support and to maybe start chipping away at the notions of gates and gatekeepers. If you’re not asking for money or permission, then nobody can tell you no.” For the past nineteen years Siken and Burk have thus forged their own path through the literary landscape and in 2010, with the help of Jake Levine, Andrew Shuta, and Joel Smith, expanded the magazine into Spork Press, which now publishes chapbooks and full-length books of poetry and fiction. The editors, who are “invested in voice-driven work that evokes rather than recounts,” make all the press’s books by hand in Tucson, Arizona. “We’re looking for narrators that inhabit and enact,” the editors say on the website. “We want speakers that can render their investment in the subject matter.” Spork has published books of poetry by Kazim Ali, Sophia Le Fraga, and Ariana Reines, as well as books of fiction by Casey Hannan, Kathleen Rooney, and Colin Winnette. Recent titles include Jennifer Juneau’s novel, ÜberChef USA, and two poetry collections, Rae Gouirand’s Glass Is Glass Water Is Water and David Welch’s Everyone Who Is Dead. Looking ahead, the editors are experimenting with new production techniques—blind stamping, full-bleed wraparound covers, and designs that use overlapping transparent inks, for example—and are considering printing machine-made editions to meet demand. Spork will be open for submissions in the summer.

Small Press Points: Unicorn Press

by

Staff

10.10.18

After four years as an apprentice at poetry publisher Unicorn Press, Andrew Saulters took the reins from Alan Brilliant in 2016, fifty years after Brilliant founded the press in Santa Barbara, California. Saulters, who edits and binds the press’s books himself in Greensboro, North Carolina, seeks to carry on the editorial vision of Brilliant and his longtime partner, Teo Savory, who died in 1989. “I’ve tried to follow Al’s editorial spirit in looking at publishing as a way that work enters the cultural commons,” says Saulters. “It’s not enough that the publisher like the work, but the work should also add something to what is already available to readers.” Unicorn Press publishes four to six books of poetry each year, at least two of which are full-length collections, and counts Robert Bly and Muriel Rukeyser among its many authors. The press recently published a haiku collection by the Carolina African American Writers Collective, One Window’s Light, edited by Lenard D. Moore, and in November will release Lynn Otto’s first book, Real Daughter, and Wayne Johns’s Antipsalms. Otto and Johns were selected from the press’s first-book competition, held annually in the spring; the press is open to general submissions of full-length and chapbook-length poetry collections from October through December.

Small Press Points: BOAAT Press

by

Staff

2.13.19

When poet Sean Shearer started BOAAT Press in 2014, he wanted to combine his two loves: poetry and book arts. “Our aim was to create something beautiful as well as meaningful by publishing emerging writers and housing their words inside our signature books,” says managing editor Catherine Bresner, who joined the staff in 2015. That signature style is part of what has set BOAAT apart from the beginning: The press’s first titles, all chapbooks made from materials such as banana peels, seaweed, Spanish moss, cotton linters, and construction paper, resemble tidal waves, the seashore, or other nautical scenes. The editors even constructed some books out of wood to look like miniature docks, complete with fishing net and seashells. “These books don’t belong on bookshelves,” writes Shearer on the press’s website. “They belong out in the open, plopped on desks and coffee tables to turn heads and wow anyone in the room.” Today, in addition to handmade books, BOAAT publishes one traditionally bound chapbook and up to two full-length books each year through its two annual contests. The press also publishes BOAAT Journal, edited by poet sam sax, which has published up-and-coming poets including Cortney Lamar Charleston, Jameson Fitzpatrick, Emily Skaja, and Chelsea Dingman. The press’s forthcoming titles include Alison Stagner’s The Thing That Brought the Shadow Here, which Nick Flynn selected as winner of the 2018 book prize, and Alycia Pirmohamed’s Faces That Fled the Wind, which Camille Rankine chose as winner of the 2018 chapbook prize. Submissions to BOAAT Journal are open year-round; submissions for both the chapbook prize and book prize are open during the month of April.

Small Press Points: Spork Press

by

Staff

12.12.18

“To feature the work that amazed us,” Richard Siken says when asked why he and Drew Burk started the literary magazine Spork in 2000. “A parallel goal was to show that it was possible to start and run a magazine, and eventually a press, without external or institutional support and to maybe start chipping away at the notions of gates and gatekeepers. If you’re not asking for money or permission, then nobody can tell you no.” For the past nineteen years Siken and Burk have thus forged their own path through the literary landscape and in 2010, with the help of Jake Levine, Andrew Shuta, and Joel Smith, expanded the magazine into Spork Press, which now publishes chapbooks and full-length books of poetry and fiction. The editors, who are “invested in voice-driven work that evokes rather than recounts,” make all the press’s books by hand in Tucson, Arizona. “We’re looking for narrators that inhabit and enact,” the editors say on the website. “We want speakers that can render their investment in the subject matter.” Spork has published books of poetry by Kazim Ali, Sophia Le Fraga, and Ariana Reines, as well as books of fiction by Casey Hannan, Kathleen Rooney, and Colin Winnette. Recent titles include Jennifer Juneau’s novel, ÜberChef USA, and two poetry collections, Rae Gouirand’s Glass Is Glass Water Is Water and David Welch’s Everyone Who Is Dead. Looking ahead, the editors are experimenting with new production techniques—blind stamping, full-bleed wraparound covers, and designs that use overlapping transparent inks, for example—and are considering printing machine-made editions to meet demand. Spork will be open for submissions in the summer.

Small Press Points: BkMk Press

by

Staff

4.10.19

In the hardscrabble world of small presses, a ten-year anniversary is a major achievement, so BkMk Press, which is approaching its fiftieth, has much to celebrate. Founded in 1971 as an outlet for Midwestern writers, the press first published poetry chapbooks out of a local branch of the Johnson County Library in Kansas. Today BkMk’s office is located at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, where editor in chief Robert Stewart also oversees the press’s affiliated magazine, New Letters, and the radio show New Letters on the Air. BkMk annually releases about six full-length collections of poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction; it has published more than eighty titles by local, national, and international writers. “Book publishing continues to be dominated by the East Coast, but BkMk gives Missouri and the Midwest a seat at the publishing table,” says managing editor Ben Furnish. In July BkMk will publish Lorraine M. López’s story collection Postcards From the Gerund State, and in the fall it will release Beverly Burch’s poetry collection Latter Days of Eve and Jennifer Wisner Kelly’s story collection, Stone Skimmers. In honor of BkMk’s origins as a chapbook publisher, the editors plan to launch a chapbook competition in 2020. The press currently hosts two other annual contests: the John Ciardi Prize and the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize, given for a poetry collection and a story collection, respectively. Both competitions open on June 1 and include a $1,000 prize and publication. General submissions are open via Submittable and postal mail until June 30.

 

 

Small Press Points: BOAAT Press

by

Staff

2.13.19

When poet Sean Shearer started BOAAT Press in 2014, he wanted to combine his two loves: poetry and book arts. “Our aim was to create something beautiful as well as meaningful by publishing emerging writers and housing their words inside our signature books,” says managing editor Catherine Bresner, who joined the staff in 2015. That signature style is part of what has set BOAAT apart from the beginning: The press’s first titles, all chapbooks made from materials such as banana peels, seaweed, Spanish moss, cotton linters, and construction paper, resemble tidal waves, the seashore, or other nautical scenes. The editors even constructed some books out of wood to look like miniature docks, complete with fishing net and seashells. “These books don’t belong on bookshelves,” writes Shearer on the press’s website. “They belong out in the open, plopped on desks and coffee tables to turn heads and wow anyone in the room.” Today, in addition to handmade books, BOAAT publishes one traditionally bound chapbook and up to two full-length books each year through its two annual contests. The press also publishes BOAAT Journal, edited by poet sam sax, which has published up-and-coming poets including Cortney Lamar Charleston, Jameson Fitzpatrick, Emily Skaja, and Chelsea Dingman. The press’s forthcoming titles include Alison Stagner’s The Thing That Brought the Shadow Here, which Nick Flynn selected as winner of the 2018 book prize, and Alycia Pirmohamed’s Faces That Fled the Wind, which Camille Rankine chose as winner of the 2018 chapbook prize. Submissions to BOAAT Journal are open year-round; submissions for both the chapbook prize and book prize are open during the month of April.

Small Press Points: Cooper Dillon Books

by

Staff

6.12.19

A poem can exist in a specific cultural or emotional moment, but it can also sustain and be revisited over and over again,” says poet Adam Deutsch, the publisher of Cooper Dillon Books (www.cooperdillon.com), a ten-year-old press dedicated to “the values that make poetry timeless.” Deutsch and assistant editor Christine Bryant Cohen run the press from San Diego and Seattle, publishing one or two books a year. So far they have released six full-length poetry collections and eight chapbooks by writers such as Jill Alexander Essbaum, Melody S. Gee, and William Matthews.

Cooper Dillon’s most recent titles are Linda Dove’s chapbook Fearn (2019), a meditation on fear, and Mónica Gomery’s debut collection, Here Is the Night and the Night on the Road (2018), which Lillian-Yvonne Bertram says is “an exquisite study in the suddenness of numbered days and the radiant pain of living with love ‘tumbling forth.’” The press eschews contests and instead welcomes submissions year-round via Submittable with a $10 reading fee, which is waived if you purchase one of the press’s titles. Deutsch believes standard book-contest entry fees, typically $20 or $25, are too high and prefers the press to “remain open for when a writer feels that the time is right to submit.” He adds, “We see poetry as community, not competition.”

Small Press Points: BkMk Press

by

Staff

4.10.19

In the hardscrabble world of small presses, a ten-year anniversary is a major achievement, so BkMk Press, which is approaching its fiftieth, has much to celebrate. Founded in 1971 as an outlet for Midwestern writers, the press first published poetry chapbooks out of a local branch of the Johnson County Library in Kansas. Today BkMk’s office is located at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, where editor in chief Robert Stewart also oversees the press’s affiliated magazine, New Letters, and the radio show New Letters on the Air. BkMk annually releases about six full-length collections of poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction; it has published more than eighty titles by local, national, and international writers. “Book publishing continues to be dominated by the East Coast, but BkMk gives Missouri and the Midwest a seat at the publishing table,” says managing editor Ben Furnish. In July BkMk will publish Lorraine M. López’s story collection Postcards From the Gerund State, and in the fall it will release Beverly Burch’s poetry collection Latter Days of Eve and Jennifer Wisner Kelly’s story collection, Stone Skimmers. In honor of BkMk’s origins as a chapbook publisher, the editors plan to launch a chapbook competition in 2020. The press currently hosts two other annual contests: the John Ciardi Prize and the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize, given for a poetry collection and a story collection, respectively. Both competitions open on June 1 and include a $1,000 prize and publication. General submissions are open via Submittable and postal mail until June 30.

 

 

Small Press Points: Acre Books

by

Staff

8.14.19

As the founding editor of the Cincinnati Review, Nicola Mason has a strong track record of spotting talented writers early in their careers. Under her leadership the review published the early work of fiction writers Caitlin Horrocks and Jamie Quatro and poets Jill Osier and Mai Der Vang. As Mason explained to Cincinnati magazine in June, after watching these writers and other contributors go on to win prestigious prizes and publish books, she thought, “We’re becoming talent scouts for everyone else; why can’t we become talent scouts for ourselves?”

So in 2017 Mason founded Acre Books, an imprint of the University of Cincinnati Press, where, along with poetry series editor Lisa Ampleman, she publishes two poetry collections, two novels, and two story collections each year. The press also welcomes hybrid forms. “I’ve always felt the boundaries separating genres and disciplines to be artificial,” says Mason. “Why shake one’s finger at innovation?” Mason also hopes to publish literary nonfiction but hasn’t yet found a book that’s the right fit. “I find a lot of creative nonfiction has an ‘all about me’ quality,” she says. “We want work that is grounded in self but that travels beyond it.” In October, Acre will publish Faylita Hicks’s poetry debut, HoodWitch, which Mason describes as “an absolute knockout full of power, pain, beauty, and magick.” Submissions in all genres are open via the press’s website; writers should include a brief description of the manuscript and ten sample pages. There is no reading fee.

 

 

Small Press Points: Cooper Dillon Books

by

Staff

6.12.19

A poem can exist in a specific cultural or emotional moment, but it can also sustain and be revisited over and over again,” says poet Adam Deutsch, the publisher of Cooper Dillon Books (www.cooperdillon.com), a ten-year-old press dedicated to “the values that make poetry timeless.” Deutsch and assistant editor Christine Bryant Cohen run the press from San Diego and Seattle, publishing one or two books a year. So far they have released six full-length poetry collections and eight chapbooks by writers such as Jill Alexander Essbaum, Melody S. Gee, and William Matthews.

Cooper Dillon’s most recent titles are Linda Dove’s chapbook Fearn (2019), a meditation on fear, and Mónica Gomery’s debut collection, Here Is the Night and the Night on the Road (2018), which Lillian-Yvonne Bertram says is “an exquisite study in the suddenness of numbered days and the radiant pain of living with love ‘tumbling forth.’” The press eschews contests and instead welcomes submissions year-round via Submittable with a $10 reading fee, which is waived if you purchase one of the press’s titles. Deutsch believes standard book-contest entry fees, typically $20 or $25, are too high and prefers the press to “remain open for when a writer feels that the time is right to submit.” He adds, “We see poetry as community, not competition.”

Small Press Points: BkMk Press

by

Staff

4.10.19

In the hardscrabble world of small presses, a ten-year anniversary is a major achievement, so BkMk Press, which is approaching its fiftieth, has much to celebrate. Founded in 1971 as an outlet for Midwestern writers, the press first published poetry chapbooks out of a local branch of the Johnson County Library in Kansas. Today BkMk’s office is located at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, where editor in chief Robert Stewart also oversees the press’s affiliated magazine, New Letters, and the radio show New Letters on the Air. BkMk annually releases about six full-length collections of poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction; it has published more than eighty titles by local, national, and international writers. “Book publishing continues to be dominated by the East Coast, but BkMk gives Missouri and the Midwest a seat at the publishing table,” says managing editor Ben Furnish. In July BkMk will publish Lorraine M. López’s story collection Postcards From the Gerund State, and in the fall it will release Beverly Burch’s poetry collection Latter Days of Eve and Jennifer Wisner Kelly’s story collection, Stone Skimmers. In honor of BkMk’s origins as a chapbook publisher, the editors plan to launch a chapbook competition in 2020. The press currently hosts two other annual contests: the John Ciardi Prize and the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize, given for a poetry collection and a story collection, respectively. Both competitions open on June 1 and include a $1,000 prize and publication. General submissions are open via Submittable and postal mail until June 30.

 

 

Small Press Points: BOAAT Press

by

Staff

2.13.19

When poet Sean Shearer started BOAAT Press in 2014, he wanted to combine his two loves: poetry and book arts. “Our aim was to create something beautiful as well as meaningful by publishing emerging writers and housing their words inside our signature books,” says managing editor Catherine Bresner, who joined the staff in 2015. That signature style is part of what has set BOAAT apart from the beginning: The press’s first titles, all chapbooks made from materials such as banana peels, seaweed, Spanish moss, cotton linters, and construction paper, resemble tidal waves, the seashore, or other nautical scenes. The editors even constructed some books out of wood to look like miniature docks, complete with fishing net and seashells. “These books don’t belong on bookshelves,” writes Shearer on the press’s website. “They belong out in the open, plopped on desks and coffee tables to turn heads and wow anyone in the room.” Today, in addition to handmade books, BOAAT publishes one traditionally bound chapbook and up to two full-length books each year through its two annual contests. The press also publishes BOAAT Journal, edited by poet sam sax, which has published up-and-coming poets including Cortney Lamar Charleston, Jameson Fitzpatrick, Emily Skaja, and Chelsea Dingman. The press’s forthcoming titles include Alison Stagner’s The Thing That Brought the Shadow Here, which Nick Flynn selected as winner of the 2018 book prize, and Alycia Pirmohamed’s Faces That Fled the Wind, which Camille Rankine chose as winner of the 2018 chapbook prize. Submissions to BOAAT Journal are open year-round; submissions for both the chapbook prize and book prize are open during the month of April.

Small Press Points: Unnamed Press

by

Staff

10.9.19

Unnamed Press is an object lesson in thinking globally, acting locally. C. P. Heiser and Olivia Taylor Smith, two former staffers at the Los Angeles Review of Books, founded the press in 2014, drawing inspiration from the flourishing independent publishing scene in L.A.—and a sense that there was more work to do. “We saw that we could bring something different to the table, particularly through our initial focus on international voices and debut authors,” says Smith. Today the press publishes ten to twelve books each year, about half fiction and half nonfiction. Notable recent titles include Adam Popescu’s Nima (2019), in which a young Sherpa woman disguised as a man leads journalists to the foot of Mount Everest, and Man Booker Prize–winning translator Jennifer Croft’s memoir of sisterhood, Homesick (2019). Esmé Weijun Wang’s debut novel, The Border of Paradise (2016), remains a best-seller.

What does it take to curate such a dynamic, international list? “We travel a lot!” says Heiser. Favorite venues for connecting with new talent include the Dhaka Lit Fest in Bangladesh, the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the American Literary Translators Association’s annual conference. “We are a story-driven press that’s attracted to underrepresented or marginalized voices—not as a rule, but simply because, as editors, that’s what excites us,” says Heiser, pointing to Nima and The Border of Paradise as good examples. “Both explore important issues through some really surprising and refreshing points of view, which for lots of reasons bigger publishers found too challenging or risky.” Unnamed Press accepts queries and submissions via e-mail, and is open year-round.

Small Press Points: Acre Books

by

Staff

8.14.19

As the founding editor of the Cincinnati Review, Nicola Mason has a strong track record of spotting talented writers early in their careers. Under her leadership the review published the early work of fiction writers Caitlin Horrocks and Jamie Quatro and poets Jill Osier and Mai Der Vang. As Mason explained to Cincinnati magazine in June, after watching these writers and other contributors go on to win prestigious prizes and publish books, she thought, “We’re becoming talent scouts for everyone else; why can’t we become talent scouts for ourselves?”

So in 2017 Mason founded Acre Books, an imprint of the University of Cincinnati Press, where, along with poetry series editor Lisa Ampleman, she publishes two poetry collections, two novels, and two story collections each year. The press also welcomes hybrid forms. “I’ve always felt the boundaries separating genres and disciplines to be artificial,” says Mason. “Why shake one’s finger at innovation?” Mason also hopes to publish literary nonfiction but hasn’t yet found a book that’s the right fit. “I find a lot of creative nonfiction has an ‘all about me’ quality,” she says. “We want work that is grounded in self but that travels beyond it.” In October, Acre will publish Faylita Hicks’s poetry debut, HoodWitch, which Mason describes as “an absolute knockout full of power, pain, beauty, and magick.” Submissions in all genres are open via the press’s website; writers should include a brief description of the manuscript and ten sample pages. There is no reading fee.

 

 

Small Press Points: Cooper Dillon Books

by

Staff

6.12.19

A poem can exist in a specific cultural or emotional moment, but it can also sustain and be revisited over and over again,” says poet Adam Deutsch, the publisher of Cooper Dillon Books (www.cooperdillon.com), a ten-year-old press dedicated to “the values that make poetry timeless.” Deutsch and assistant editor Christine Bryant Cohen run the press from San Diego and Seattle, publishing one or two books a year. So far they have released six full-length poetry collections and eight chapbooks by writers such as Jill Alexander Essbaum, Melody S. Gee, and William Matthews.

Cooper Dillon’s most recent titles are Linda Dove’s chapbook Fearn (2019), a meditation on fear, and Mónica Gomery’s debut collection, Here Is the Night and the Night on the Road (2018), which Lillian-Yvonne Bertram says is “an exquisite study in the suddenness of numbered days and the radiant pain of living with love ‘tumbling forth.’” The press eschews contests and instead welcomes submissions year-round via Submittable with a $10 reading fee, which is waived if you purchase one of the press’s titles. Deutsch believes standard book-contest entry fees, typically $20 or $25, are too high and prefers the press to “remain open for when a writer feels that the time is right to submit.” He adds, “We see poetry as community, not competition.”

Small Press Points: BkMk Press

by

Staff

4.10.19

In the hardscrabble world of small presses, a ten-year anniversary is a major achievement, so BkMk Press, which is approaching its fiftieth, has much to celebrate. Founded in 1971 as an outlet for Midwestern writers, the press first published poetry chapbooks out of a local branch of the Johnson County Library in Kansas. Today BkMk’s office is located at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, where editor in chief Robert Stewart also oversees the press’s affiliated magazine, New Letters, and the radio show New Letters on the Air. BkMk annually releases about six full-length collections of poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction; it has published more than eighty titles by local, national, and international writers. “Book publishing continues to be dominated by the East Coast, but BkMk gives Missouri and the Midwest a seat at the publishing table,” says managing editor Ben Furnish. In July BkMk will publish Lorraine M. López’s story collection Postcards From the Gerund State, and in the fall it will release Beverly Burch’s poetry collection Latter Days of Eve and Jennifer Wisner Kelly’s story collection, Stone Skimmers. In honor of BkMk’s origins as a chapbook publisher, the editors plan to launch a chapbook competition in 2020. The press currently hosts two other annual contests: the John Ciardi Prize and the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize, given for a poetry collection and a story collection, respectively. Both competitions open on June 1 and include a $1,000 prize and publication. General submissions are open via Submittable and postal mail until June 30.

 

 

Small Press Points: Trembling Pillow Press

by

Staff

12.11.19

Poetry can change your life, and it doesn’t happen on the page; it happens in the rooms and places where poetry connects you to people who change how you are in the world,” says Megan Burns, publisher of Trembling Pillow Press in New Orleans. This sense of poetry as a means of community animates all of the press’s work. Trembling Pillow was established in the late nineties with an initial focus on making broadsides and occasional chapbooks but turned to producing full-length poetry books in 2006. Today Trembling Pillow publishes four or five poetry titles a year, about half of which are debut collections.

Burns approaches these editorial collaborations with first-time authors with particular care. “I am giving someone an experience that becomes the basis for future relationships in the writing world, and I want them to have a high bar,” she says, noting the years of devoted work that goes into a project before it ever reaches the press and a publisher’s obligation to treat a work with that same devotion. Trembling Pillow’s sensibility is eclectic—its titles vary from “feminist manifesto to punk rock memoir to collaborative eco-poetics to lyrical experimentation or rural horror manifestations”—but its poets share a willingness to take risks and to surprise. Among the press’s 2020 titles are Marty Cain’s The Wound Is (Not) Real: A Memoir, a hybrid text that mines the experiences of the author’s adolescence in Vermont; Erin M. Bertram’s It’s Not a Lonely World, about queerness and cancer; and Jenny Sadre-Orafai and Anne Champion’s Book of Levitations, a “modern-day poetic spell book.” Trembling Pillow is open for submissions year-round via Submittable; a $15 reading fee goes directly into producing more books and is waived in the month of December.

Small Press Points: Unnamed Press

by

Staff

10.9.19

Unnamed Press is an object lesson in thinking globally, acting locally. C. P. Heiser and Olivia Taylor Smith, two former staffers at the Los Angeles Review of Books, founded the press in 2014, drawing inspiration from the flourishing independent publishing scene in L.A.—and a sense that there was more work to do. “We saw that we could bring something different to the table, particularly through our initial focus on international voices and debut authors,” says Smith. Today the press publishes ten to twelve books each year, about half fiction and half nonfiction. Notable recent titles include Adam Popescu’s Nima (2019), in which a young Sherpa woman disguised as a man leads journalists to the foot of Mount Everest, and Man Booker Prize–winning translator Jennifer Croft’s memoir of sisterhood, Homesick (2019). Esmé Weijun Wang’s debut novel, The Border of Paradise (2016), remains a best-seller.

What does it take to curate such a dynamic, international list? “We travel a lot!” says Heiser. Favorite venues for connecting with new talent include the Dhaka Lit Fest in Bangladesh, the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the American Literary Translators Association’s annual conference. “We are a story-driven press that’s attracted to underrepresented or marginalized voices—not as a rule, but simply because, as editors, that’s what excites us,” says Heiser, pointing to Nima and The Border of Paradise as good examples. “Both explore important issues through some really surprising and refreshing points of view, which for lots of reasons bigger publishers found too challenging or risky.” Unnamed Press accepts queries and submissions via e-mail, and is open year-round.

Small Press Points: The Cupboard Pamphlet

by

Staff

2.12.20

Consider the Cupboard Pamphlet your source for misfit books. “The Cupboard Pamphlet was formed to address the lack of publishing venues for prose chapbooks that are formally strange or conceptually bizarre,” say editors Kelly Dulaney and Todd Seabrook. Founded in 2008 by Adam Peterson and Dave Madden, the press originally printed free, anonymous pamphlets and evolved to concentrate on single-authored chapbooks. “The first of these were tape-bound, designed to be inexpensive and mobile—pocketable,” say Seabrook and Dulaney. Today this feeling of experiment and nerve continues to guide the press as it publishes four prose chapbooks a year by authors including Chanelle Benz, Brian Evenson, and Courtney Maum. Most of these works are thirty to seventy pages in length, although Dulaney and Seabrook avoid placing strictures on submissions.

“We like works that provide play and surprise in terms of form, structure, and language in addition to a sense of emotional sincerity,” they say. Seabrook is based in Cleveland, and Dulaney in Denver; they collaborate via phone calls and e-mail. Dulaney relishes one-on-one work with authors, while Seabrook “enjoys the physicality of the chapbook—designing it, printing it, and seeing it develop on the page.” All of the titles produced by the Cupboard Pamphlet are selected through an annual online contest with a submission fee of $20; the 2020 contest will run March 1 through May 1. This year Cupboard will publish 2019 contest winner Lia Woodall’s Remove to Play, “a game-based, nonfiction work about the spaces left open in the wake of a suicide” as well as books by J. S. DeYoung and Thomas Israel Hopkins and a coauthored work by Kara Dorris and Gwendolyn Paradice.

Small Press Points: Trembling Pillow Press

by

Staff

12.11.19

Poetry can change your life, and it doesn’t happen on the page; it happens in the rooms and places where poetry connects you to people who change how you are in the world,” says Megan Burns, publisher of Trembling Pillow Press in New Orleans. This sense of poetry as a means of community animates all of the press’s work. Trembling Pillow was established in the late nineties with an initial focus on making broadsides and occasional chapbooks but turned to producing full-length poetry books in 2006. Today Trembling Pillow publishes four or five poetry titles a year, about half of which are debut collections.

Burns approaches these editorial collaborations with first-time authors with particular care. “I am giving someone an experience that becomes the basis for future relationships in the writing world, and I want them to have a high bar,” she says, noting the years of devoted work that goes into a project before it ever reaches the press and a publisher’s obligation to treat a work with that same devotion. Trembling Pillow’s sensibility is eclectic—its titles vary from “feminist manifesto to punk rock memoir to collaborative eco-poetics to lyrical experimentation or rural horror manifestations”—but its poets share a willingness to take risks and to surprise. Among the press’s 2020 titles are Marty Cain’s The Wound Is (Not) Real: A Memoir, a hybrid text that mines the experiences of the author’s adolescence in Vermont; Erin M. Bertram’s It’s Not a Lonely World, about queerness and cancer; and Jenny Sadre-Orafai and Anne Champion’s Book of Levitations, a “modern-day poetic spell book.” Trembling Pillow is open for submissions year-round via Submittable; a $15 reading fee goes directly into producing more books and is waived in the month of December.

Small Press Points: Dottir Press

by

Staff

4.8.20

Even though millions of books are published each year, many stories remain either silenced or mistold,” says Jennifer Baumgardner, founder of Dottir Press. A journalist and author for more than two decades, Baumgardner established the press in 2017 on the heels of her tenure as executive director of the Feminist Press, where she “discovered she liked the business side of books as much as she liked the writing side.” When Baumgardner saw that a politically charged children’s book she believed in might not find a home, she created Dottir Press to provide one. (That book, Anastasia Higginbotham’s Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness, is now a Dottir best-seller.) Located in New York City, the press publishes between six and eight works of fiction and nonfiction a year, including both adult and children’s titles. All are “books by feminists, for everyone,” as Dottir’s slogan declares.

“I believe in creating space for people to tell the truth about what has happened to them and to be vulnerable,” says Baumgardner. Forthcoming titles include transgender activist Cooper Lee Bombardier’s debut, Pass With Care (May 2020), a collection of autobiographical writings that explore masculinity, identity, and the body as systems habitually in flux; and Bett Williams’s memoir The Wild Kindness: A Psilocybin Odyssey (September 2020), which Baumgardner says is “funny and a real challenge to those who might colonize Indigenous knowledge of mushrooms.” The press is open for submissions by e-mail year-round. Baumgardner reads manuscripts with an eye for work that is politically engaged and will change its readers: “I love getting behind a book that truly could influence culture in positive ways.”

Small Press Points: The Cupboard Pamphlet

by

Staff

2.12.20

Consider the Cupboard Pamphlet your source for misfit books. “The Cupboard Pamphlet was formed to address the lack of publishing venues for prose chapbooks that are formally strange or conceptually bizarre,” say editors Kelly Dulaney and Todd Seabrook. Founded in 2008 by Adam Peterson and Dave Madden, the press originally printed free, anonymous pamphlets and evolved to concentrate on single-authored chapbooks. “The first of these were tape-bound, designed to be inexpensive and mobile—pocketable,” say Seabrook and Dulaney. Today this feeling of experiment and nerve continues to guide the press as it publishes four prose chapbooks a year by authors including Chanelle Benz, Brian Evenson, and Courtney Maum. Most of these works are thirty to seventy pages in length, although Dulaney and Seabrook avoid placing strictures on submissions.

“We like works that provide play and surprise in terms of form, structure, and language in addition to a sense of emotional sincerity,” they say. Seabrook is based in Cleveland, and Dulaney in Denver; they collaborate via phone calls and e-mail. Dulaney relishes one-on-one work with authors, while Seabrook “enjoys the physicality of the chapbook—designing it, printing it, and seeing it develop on the page.” All of the titles produced by the Cupboard Pamphlet are selected through an annual online contest with a submission fee of $20; the 2020 contest will run March 1 through May 1. This year Cupboard will publish 2019 contest winner Lia Woodall’s Remove to Play, “a game-based, nonfiction work about the spaces left open in the wake of a suicide” as well as books by J. S. DeYoung and Thomas Israel Hopkins and a coauthored work by Kara Dorris and Gwendolyn Paradice.

Small Press Points: A3 Press

I like to think that each chapbook is a journey,” says editor Shaun Levin of the immersive, imaginative volumes he publishes at the A3 Press. Founded in 2019 as an offshoot of the A3 Review and based in London and Madrid, the A3 Press produces between six and ten chapbooks each year, in a mix of prose, poetry, and art.

The press’s trademark is the unusual design of its chapbooks: Each is printed on a single sheet of paper that folds in the style of a map. “I like the fluidity that comes with the map fold, the sense of randomness and serendipity as you move through the chapbook,” says Levin. “You can move through the chapbook any way you want, start anywhere you want. It’s an adventure, a discovery.” Levin recently published poet Sara Eddy’s Tell the Bees, about “beekeeping and dealing with cancer,” and will release Elizabeth Briggs’s Made to Order and Mark Adams’s Peregrinus [Bede’s Walk] later this year. Submissions are open through October 1 via Submittable with a $20 reading fee, which goes toward production and paying the press’s authors. “Send us work that you feel only you could have written,” says Levin. “Deeply personal work that overshares and doesn’t hold back is particularly appealing to us.” 

Small Press Points: Dottir Press

by

Staff

4.8.20

Even though millions of books are published each year, many stories remain either silenced or mistold,” says Jennifer Baumgardner, founder of Dottir Press. A journalist and author for more than two decades, Baumgardner established the press in 2017 on the heels of her tenure as executive director of the Feminist Press, where she “discovered she liked the business side of books as much as she liked the writing side.” When Baumgardner saw that a politically charged children’s book she believed in might not find a home, she created Dottir Press to provide one. (That book, Anastasia Higginbotham’s Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness, is now a Dottir best-seller.) Located in New York City, the press publishes between six and eight works of fiction and nonfiction a year, including both adult and children’s titles. All are “books by feminists, for everyone,” as Dottir’s slogan declares.

“I believe in creating space for people to tell the truth about what has happened to them and to be vulnerable,” says Baumgardner. Forthcoming titles include transgender activist Cooper Lee Bombardier’s debut, Pass With Care (May 2020), a collection of autobiographical writings that explore masculinity, identity, and the body as systems habitually in flux; and Bett Williams’s memoir The Wild Kindness: A Psilocybin Odyssey (September 2020), which Baumgardner says is “funny and a real challenge to those who might colonize Indigenous knowledge of mushrooms.” The press is open for submissions by e-mail year-round. Baumgardner reads manuscripts with an eye for work that is politically engaged and will change its readers: “I love getting behind a book that truly could influence culture in positive ways.”

Small Press Points: Vegetarian Alcoholic Press

by

Staff

8.12.20

What makes a book a Vegetarian Alcoholic Press book? “Connectivity and transcendence,” says Freddy La Force, the editor behind the Milwaukee press. Inspired by the city’s vibrant poetry scene, La Force started Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in 2014. “The writers I found myself admiring didn’t have MFAs or literary connections,” says La Force, “and it seemed like there should be more outlets for their work.” More than sixty-five books later, he remains committed to seeking talent outside entrenched hierarchies. La Force prefers that writers forgo cover letters when sending work, and submitting is always free. “You wouldn’t charge someone to apply for a job, and writing is work,” he says. Vegetarian Alcoholic produces twelve books a year, primarily poetry as well as some fiction, drama, art, and comics. The press recently published travis tate’s Maiden, which La Force describes as “insanely cerebral, sexy poems serving common themes . . . through a very playful, loving, queer, Black lens.” And Kelsey Marie Harris’s collection Spit (Verb) in My Mouth, a “singular treasury of gorgeous foul-mouthed gospels,” was released in August. Submissions are open year-round via e-mail. “The name of the press seems to make people want to submit stuff that attempts to be edgy or abrasive for its own sake,” says La Force. “What I’m really looking for are new forms of expression and new concepts of beauty. I think the best way to uplift people, whether from a personal or revolutionary standpoint, is to instill infinite imagination. Send the work you love. The stuff you felt like you had to write, regardless of your confidence in it.”

Small Press Points: A3 Press

I like to think that each chapbook is a journey,” says editor Shaun Levin of the immersive, imaginative volumes he publishes at the A3 Press. Founded in 2019 as an offshoot of the A3 Review and based in London and Madrid, the A3 Press produces between six and ten chapbooks each year, in a mix of prose, poetry, and art.

The press’s trademark is the unusual design of its chapbooks: Each is printed on a single sheet of paper that folds in the style of a map. “I like the fluidity that comes with the map fold, the sense of randomness and serendipity as you move through the chapbook,” says Levin. “You can move through the chapbook any way you want, start anywhere you want. It’s an adventure, a discovery.” Levin recently published poet Sara Eddy’s Tell the Bees, about “beekeeping and dealing with cancer,” and will release Elizabeth Briggs’s Made to Order and Mark Adams’s Peregrinus [Bede’s Walk] later this year. Submissions are open through October 1 via Submittable with a $20 reading fee, which goes toward production and paying the press’s authors. “Send us work that you feel only you could have written,” says Levin. “Deeply personal work that overshares and doesn’t hold back is particularly appealing to us.” 

Small Press Points: FlowerSong Press

by

Staff

10.7.20

Edward Vidaurre, publisher and editor in chief of FlowerSong Press, describes the press’s authors as “an all-star team of healers” who are “not only invested in self but also community.” Founded in 2011 in McAllen, Texas, as VAO Publishing, FlowerSong “nurtures essential verse from, about, and through the borderlands,” championing writers from the United States, Latin America, and beyond. The press publishes poetry and prose, as well as titles for children and young adults in partnership with Juventud Press. New releases from FlowerSong include Dreaming With Mariposas by Sonia Gutiérrez, a magical bildungsroman in vignettes, and Luz at Midnight by Marisol Cortez, the “story of an ill-timed love that unfolds in the time of climate change.” Good Cop/Bad Cop, an anthology of art and writing responding to police brutality, is among the titles set for publication in 2021. An abiding commitment to both its readers and writers steers all facets of the press’s work. “The authors of FlowerSong know I push hard for them,” says Vidaurre. “For those who pick up a book from us, I want them to feel that these living words have been custom-made just for them in a beautiful book.” Vidaurre and his team also prioritize timely responses to submitters. “I read for the future of my community, my people that have been underrepresented,” says Vidaurre of seeking out new work for the press. “I want to read and say, ‘I see influences of Julio Cortázar, Allen Ginsberg, Miguel Hernández, Amiri Baraka, Gloria Anzaldúa,’ and then say, ‘But…this feels original, and there’s a truth here I haven’t read before.’” Submissions are open year-round through the press’s website.

Small Press Points: Vegetarian Alcoholic Press

by

Staff

8.12.20

What makes a book a Vegetarian Alcoholic Press book? “Connectivity and transcendence,” says Freddy La Force, the editor behind the Milwaukee press. Inspired by the city’s vibrant poetry scene, La Force started Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in 2014. “The writers I found myself admiring didn’t have MFAs or literary connections,” says La Force, “and it seemed like there should be more outlets for their work.” More than sixty-five books later, he remains committed to seeking talent outside entrenched hierarchies. La Force prefers that writers forgo cover letters when sending work, and submitting is always free. “You wouldn’t charge someone to apply for a job, and writing is work,” he says. Vegetarian Alcoholic produces twelve books a year, primarily poetry as well as some fiction, drama, art, and comics. The press recently published travis tate’s Maiden, which La Force describes as “insanely cerebral, sexy poems serving common themes . . . through a very playful, loving, queer, Black lens.” And Kelsey Marie Harris’s collection Spit (Verb) in My Mouth, a “singular treasury of gorgeous foul-mouthed gospels,” was released in August. Submissions are open year-round via e-mail. “The name of the press seems to make people want to submit stuff that attempts to be edgy or abrasive for its own sake,” says La Force. “What I’m really looking for are new forms of expression and new concepts of beauty. I think the best way to uplift people, whether from a personal or revolutionary standpoint, is to instill infinite imagination. Send the work you love. The stuff you felt like you had to write, regardless of your confidence in it.”

Small Press Points: Threadsuns

by

Staff

12.16.20

A new teaching press based at High Point University in North Carolina, Threadsuns draws its name and its vision from the title of a poem by Paul Celan. In the poem as translated by Pierre Joris, “Threadsuns” refers to “songs to sing beyond / mankind,” and it is to those songs that editor and publisher Michael Flatt hopes the press can offer a home. Flatt, who teaches creative writing at High Point, launched the press in early 2020 with the vision of providing student assistants with the kind of hands-on publishing experience that so inspired him as an MFA student—and that expanded his sense of global literature and the literary community. The press plans to publish three volumes a year, one each in the genres of poetry, prose, and work in translation.

“Our inclinations lean toward experimental work that maintains a connection to human experience,” says Flatt. Threadsuns released its first title, Brian Henry’s collection Permanent State, in October, and Ryoko Sekiguchi’s lyric essay The Present Voice, translated by Lindsay Turner, will follow. While getting Threadsuns off the ground amid the pandemic has been challenging, it has also underscored the press’s ambitions to engender connection and inspire a new generation of editors. “Permanent State, while not written during the pandemic, really speaks to the dynamics of power and powerlessness that one feels right now. The press itself is like that for me,” says Flatt. “I’m doing something, which is great, but also, you have to question what it actually does in the world. How can you make it more effective, more significant? And for me, that’s where the teaching comes in. If I can pass on this practice to others, teach them how to create community through publishing, then the project has some meaningful agency.” Threadsuns is open for submissions via e-mail year-round.

Small Press Points: FlowerSong Press

by

Staff

10.7.20

Edward Vidaurre, publisher and editor in chief of FlowerSong Press, describes the press’s authors as “an all-star team of healers” who are “not only invested in self but also community.” Founded in 2011 in McAllen, Texas, as VAO Publishing, FlowerSong “nurtures essential verse from, about, and through the borderlands,” championing writers from the United States, Latin America, and beyond. The press publishes poetry and prose, as well as titles for children and young adults in partnership with Juventud Press. New releases from FlowerSong include Dreaming With Mariposas by Sonia Gutiérrez, a magical bildungsroman in vignettes, and Luz at Midnight by Marisol Cortez, the “story of an ill-timed love that unfolds in the time of climate change.” Good Cop/Bad Cop, an anthology of art and writing responding to police brutality, is among the titles set for publication in 2021. An abiding commitment to both its readers and writers steers all facets of the press’s work. “The authors of FlowerSong know I push hard for them,” says Vidaurre. “For those who pick up a book from us, I want them to feel that these living words have been custom-made just for them in a beautiful book.” Vidaurre and his team also prioritize timely responses to submitters. “I read for the future of my community, my people that have been underrepresented,” says Vidaurre of seeking out new work for the press. “I want to read and say, ‘I see influences of Julio Cortázar, Allen Ginsberg, Miguel Hernández, Amiri Baraka, Gloria Anzaldúa,’ and then say, ‘But…this feels original, and there’s a truth here I haven’t read before.’” Submissions are open year-round through the press’s website.

Small Press Points: Clash Books

by

Staff

2.17.21

The titles of Clash Books are by turns Gothic and playful and nervy, but they all share one quality: They must be spellbinding. Based in Troy, New York, and founded as a media website that evolved into a book publisher in 2017, Clash Books issues about twenty titles a year, an eclectic mix of art books, poetry, nonfiction, and fiction—“really, anything that excites us,” say editor in chief Leza Cantoral and managing editor Christoph Paul. “A big mission is to challenge genre expectations as well as to bring together a diversity of voices.”

This year the press will release titles as varied as Aaron Carnes’s pop-criticism apologia In Defense of Ska and Kevin Sampsell’s collage and poetry book I Made an Accident, alongside literary fiction and “a novel about waterfall goddesses, a trans fairy tale young adult novella, lots of fun and dark poetry, and some quality literary horror,” say the editors. Paul says he knows he has found the next Clash book when reading a submission if he has that “feeling you get when you hear a new song that you have to listen to again right away.” He adds, “I know it’s the next book when the middle is as strong as the beginning.” Clash is open for submissions year-round via e-mail and does not charge a reading fee. 

Small Press Points: Threadsuns

by

Staff

12.16.20

A new teaching press based at High Point University in North Carolina, Threadsuns draws its name and its vision from the title of a poem by Paul Celan. In the poem as translated by Pierre Joris, “Threadsuns” refers to “songs to sing beyond / mankind,” and it is to those songs that editor and publisher Michael Flatt hopes the press can offer a home. Flatt, who teaches creative writing at High Point, launched the press in early 2020 with the vision of providing student assistants with the kind of hands-on publishing experience that so inspired him as an MFA student—and that expanded his sense of global literature and the literary community. The press plans to publish three volumes a year, one each in the genres of poetry, prose, and work in translation.

“Our inclinations lean toward experimental work that maintains a connection to human experience,” says Flatt. Threadsuns released its first title, Brian Henry’s collection Permanent State, in October, and Ryoko Sekiguchi’s lyric essay The Present Voice, translated by Lindsay Turner, will follow. While getting Threadsuns off the ground amid the pandemic has been challenging, it has also underscored the press’s ambitions to engender connection and inspire a new generation of editors. “Permanent State, while not written during the pandemic, really speaks to the dynamics of power and powerlessness that one feels right now. The press itself is like that for me,” says Flatt. “I’m doing something, which is great, but also, you have to question what it actually does in the world. How can you make it more effective, more significant? And for me, that’s where the teaching comes in. If I can pass on this practice to others, teach them how to create community through publishing, then the project has some meaningful agency.” Threadsuns is open for submissions via e-mail year-round.

Craft Capsule: Why You Need an Authenticity Editor

by

Anjali Enjeti

7.26.21

This is no. 106 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

From the moment I began writing my essay collection, Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change, and my first novel, The Parted Earth, I knew I would need to hire authenticity editors. It wouldn’t be my first time—I’ve been hiring authenticity editors for years to aid in my work on everything from op-eds to articles to essays.

What are authenticity (or sensitivity) editors and what do they do? They are professional editors who scrutinize writers’ work for harmful or stereotypical depictions of characters, settings, and plots. They ensure that a narrative is accurate and inclusive at a structural, sentence, and word level to help a writer produce a dynamic, effective, and authentic story.

Authenticity editors will dissuade a writer from comparing a Black or brown character’s skin tone to the color of food. Or recommend fleshing out a disabled character if it appears their sole purpose is to enlighten or educate the protagonist. They will flag a writer’s use of the word tribe and suggest another that does not appropriate Indigenous culture. They will counsel against a white savior narrative.

On a more philosophical level, the field of authenticity editing asks writers to consider the fact that their ability to publish gives them power, and that this power has the potential to impugn members of marginalized communities. It challenges the notion championed by centuries of white male authors that writers have some inherent “right” to compose whatever they want regardless of the harm their writing might cause others.

As a result, some writers, particularly writers of privilege, feel threatened by the idea of authenticity editing. They compare it to censorship or cancel culture. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Authenticity editing reflects contemporary social, cultural, and political evolutions in language. An authenticity editor would suggest that the term “enslaved people” replace “slaves,” to implicate the active role of enslavers while also emphasizing the humanity of those who were enslaved. Recently, some publications’ editors have decided to capitalize the “b” in black to describe Black people. Authenticity editors have been advocating for this change for years. These types of edits make clear that characters in stories, whether in fiction or in nonfiction, deserve the same degree of dimension, respect, and precision as actual, living people.

Authenticity editors also possess a degree of expertise that beta readers—nonprofessional readers who provide feedback on completed manuscripts—usually lack. Some beta readers can point out problematic issues or themes in a manuscript that require more nuance and sensitivity, but a typical beta reader, even one who shares an identity with the characters, may not catch the issues an authenticity editor will spot. This is because an authenticity editor specializes in deeply examining how internalized biases shape language and story. So even if a writer is already working with multiple readers, they may still need a dedicated authenticity edit.

My essay collection, Southbound, tackles white supremacy, homophobia, state-sanctioned violence, and extremism, among other difficult issues. My authenticity editor ensured that my words accurately reflected the language belonging to the communities I discussed, and that my essays about violence did not devolve into tragedy porn. My novel, The Parted Earth, is told through multiple characters’ points of view, including those of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. My authenticity editors for the book (I hired two) helped to ensure that the depictions of these characters were fully realized and culturally accurate.

Let me challenge the notion, too, that an author only needs an authenticity editor if they are writing outside of their community. Just because an author shares an identity with the people or culture represented in their book, does not mean they won’t unintentionally use denigrating language, stereotypes, and tropes. In both Southbound and The Parted Earth, I write from the point of view of a mixed-race brown woman. My authenticity readers examined my lived experiences in the books as rigorously as those of others.

Unfortunately the publishing industry has miles to go before it values authenticity editing for the vital discipline it is. If the goal is to write and publish books that do no harm then an authenticity edit should be a part of the process.

 

Anjali Enjeti is an author, teacher, and organizer. Her first essay collection, Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change (University of Georgia Press, 2021), and her first novel, The Parted Earth (Hub City Press, 2021), were both published in the spring. The recipient of awards from the South Asian Journalists Association and the American Society of Journalists and Authors, she has written for Oxford American, USA Today, Harper’s Bazaar, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among other publications. She cofounded the Georgia chapter of They See Blue, an organization for South Asian Democrats, and served on the Georgia AAPI Leadership Council for the Biden-Harris campaign. She teaches in the MFA program at Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia.

Craft Capsule: The Multi-Genre Mindset

by

Anjali Enjeti

7.19.21

This is no. 105 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

As a journalist, critic, novelist, and essayist, I write in several different genres on any given day. It can be dizzying. Different genres involve different techniques and strategies. A reported piece involves tracking down sources, finding an intriguing hook, and crafting clear, concise sentences with facts, data, and quotes—all while keeping to a deadline and a strict word limit. Creative writing and criticism, meanwhile, demand that the mind be pliable, contemplative, and reflective, that ideas have the time and attention to marinate and wander before committing to a particular narrative.

Yet many writers still manage to switch genres. Zora Neale Hurston was the ultimate genre-switcher. She wrote short stories, novels, biographies, ethnographies, and criticism. Even after her death in 1960, Hurston’s estate continued to publish books in multiple genres. Her biography of Cudjo Lewis, Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’ was released in 2018, followed by the short story collection Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick in 2020.

My approach is to avoid thinking about what sets genres apart from one another, and instead think of their commonalities. Each involves researching, drafting, and revising, so I use my frame of mind (am I in a research mood or a drafting mood?) to inform what I take on. I find this method freeing. Genre, after all, is a construct. When I sit in front of my laptop, I’m barely conscious of genre. But I am fully aware of the stage of my manuscripts, where they are on the road to publication, and what they need from me to inch toward completion.

Starting a first draft often feels as if someone has handed me an atlas and told me to pick wherever I want to go. I can ignore, at least for the time being, questions about whether, how, and when these drafts will ever see the light of day. So when I have first-draft energy, I take full advantage of it by channeling it into several new projects at the same time. A quilt of Post-it notes for a nonfiction book proposal will blanket the wall in my office while I pound the keys on my laptop for a new flash fiction piece. Knowing that many of my writing projects won’t make it past the first draft fuels me to take more risks, to write in other genres, such as poetry, that are more challenging for me.

Some days I’m in a research mood. As Hurston herself so aptly puts it, “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” When I am seized with this inspiration to poke and pry, I tackle the work for multiple writing projects simultaneously. My nonfiction book, Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change, and my novel, The Parted Earth, both involved extensive research. On days my mind was eager to fall down the rabbit hole of footnotes, when dozens of tabs lined the top of my screen and dog-eared pages of books laid scattered at my feet, it felt natural to peruse the testimonies of survivors from 1947 Partition for the novel while also reading articles about the AIDS epidemic in the South for one of my essays in Southbound.

If I am taking on revision, I will open up every document I need to edit on my laptop at the same time—perhaps a short story, an essay, and an article—until at least one or more of them are complete. The revisions for different pieces, I find, inform and are in conversation with one another. Tightening a paragraph in one piece will often make me reconsider the efficacy and punch of a paragraph in another. This method is also valuable for analyzing pacing. If I am rereading a draft of an essay that has good flow and keeps my eyes traveling down the page, I will notice right away when passages in a novel chapter feel clunky and choppy.   

Writing in multiple genres at the same time has been my cure for both boredom and imposter syndrome. If I am not excited by or confident about a manuscript in one genre, switching to another will reinvigorate my creativity and remind me that I do, in fact, know how to write.

And why shouldn’t we spread our writing selves across multiple genres? In the words of Walt Whitman, we are large, we contain multitudes. A multi-genre writing life, after all, is only natural.

 

Anjali Enjeti is an author, teacher, and organizer. Her first essay collection, Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change (University of Georgia Press, 2021), and her first novel, The Parted Earth (Hub City Press, 2021), were both published in the spring. The recipient of awards from the South Asian Journalists Association and the American Society of Journalists and Authors, she has written for Oxford American, USA Today, Harper’s Bazaar, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among other publications. She cofounded the Georgia chapter of They See Blue, an organization for South Asian Democrats, and served on the Georgia AAPI Leadership Council for the Biden-Harris campaign. She teaches in the MFA program at Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia.

Thumbnail: Mana Amir

Craft Capsule: The “Routine” of Writing With Chronic Pain

by

Anjali Enjeti

7.12.21

This is no. 104 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Most days my eyes pop open around 3:30 AM. If I’m lucky, I’ll fall back asleep until 4 or 4:30. What wakes me in the wee hours of the morning isn’t a child, chirping birds, or the siren from the nearby firehouse—it’s pain. I’ve had chronic tailbone pain, coccydynia, for half of my life. It’s at its worst when I’m sitting or lying down, but lingers when I stand. I also have Hashimoto’s disease, which causes, among other things, stiffening, swelling, and joint pain, and I was most recently diagnosed with a rare but benign tumor, which has impacted my mobility.

My book tour(s) this spring bookended my myriad attempts to relieve my pain. A few weeks before my essay collection, Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change, was published in April, I had a medical procedure to relieve my tailbone pain. (Unfortunately, it failed.) In June, I ended my book tour for my novel, The Parted Earth, with a surgery to remove the tumor. (It succeeded.) Over those two months I spent countless hours at five different doctors’ offices, and in the evenings I tuned into online events for my books.

I’m not alone. Many writers write while in pain and find ways to produce compelling work. In the Paris Review Daily, Nafissa Thompson-Spires described writing with chronic illness this way: “It means something to me to be able to produce when something is daily trying to take me out.” I couldn’t agree more. Some days I can’t get out of bed. Often I have to write while lying on my stomach, propped up on my elbows in a modified Sphinx pose, my back covered in ice packs. Still, I manage to find a way to write words that I’m proud of.

Chronic pain has made me reassess what it means to maintain a creative writing practice, and what this creative writing practice can or should look like. When my three children were little, I figured out how to write around their sleep schedules and stomach viruses. But chronic pain tosses my intentions to write at a certain time or on a specific day out the window. It has therefore forced me to challenge traditional notions of writing productivity.

In a piece for Literary Hub, Sonya Huber, author of Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays From a Nervous System (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), arrives at this conclusion: “I now think of my writing practice far more holistically, as a season of time, rather than a hard deadline. Thinking of time more broadly accommodates my physical needs on a given day, while still ensuring that I keep moving forward.”

I have been following Huber’s lead for years, dividing my creative writing goals, literally, into seasons. By this winter solstice, I hope to complete the first rewrite of my next novel. Finishing up just before the holidays is my goal, even though I know that I may have to go weeks without writing due to pain. And what happens if I do not succeed in meeting this self-imposed deadline?

Absolutely nothing. There is always another season.

What I have also built into this “schedule” (if it can be called that) is grace and forgiveness. My body has earned rest and restoration. My mind deserves the space to process the trauma and grief that comes from a life in constant pain. As a writer in pain, I can’t afford to yield an inch to guilt or regret for not writing.

Perhaps, while writing in pain, I have learned a valuable lesson that I never would have learned otherwise. I’m still a writer, even if I spend entire days lying on a heap of ice packs instead of chipping away at a manuscript. I’m a writer no matter how many or how few words actually make it to the page.

 

Anjali Enjeti is an author, teacher, and organizer. Her first essay collection, Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change (University of Georgia Press, 2021), and her first novel, The Parted Earth (Hub City Press, 2021), were both published in the spring. The recipient of awards from the South Asian Journalists Association and the American Society of Journalists and Authors, she has written for Oxford American, USA Today, Harper’s Bazaar, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among other publications. She cofounded the Georgia chapter of They See Blue, an organization for South Asian Democrats, and served on the Georgia AAPI Leadership Council for the Biden-Harris campaign. She teaches in the MFA program at Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia.

Thumbnail: Joyce McCown

Craft Capsule: Night Call

by

Alex Dimitrov

6.7.21

This is no. 100 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

New York’s streets are everywhere in my poems. In February of 2014 I used the city quite literally. It was for a project called Night Call. The idea was to travel to strangers and read them poems in bed, or in the most intimate space of their homes. For many people this ended up being the kitchen or living room. For one guy, his balcony in Tribeca. Mostly though, strangers walked me right into their bedrooms and offered me a glimpse of their lives.

I’ve lived in New York for more than ten years. It still feels like the city doesn’t need me or know that I’m here. And to be honest, I like that. I’m a writer who thrives off resistance. That kind of pushback and being ignored excites me. In Night Call, I wanted to fuse that feeling with the intimacy of going over to someone’s apartment. Being in a person’s space is often more intimate than sleeping with them. It’s an alluring exchange: people showing you where they spend the majority of their lives. The poem is also an exchange. It’s like showing you a map to the interior though not the interior itself. The poem, to me, is a conversation between people.

I announced Night Call on social media and offered to do readings for anyone who didn’t know me. That was the catch, they had to be total strangers. They could be in any borough and had the choice of four separate Sundays on which we could meet. I’d leave my apartment around eight in the evening with poems and my phone. Nothing more. Maybe a pack of cigarettes (though I was trying to quit). Sometimes I didn’t know the gender of the person I was going to read to (based on their name) and I didn’t care either. I took the N and the R and the 6 and the B trains. Most of the readings were quick. Twenty or twenty-five minutes. Other times I wouldn’t leave someone’s apartment until two or three in the morning and I’d cab back, exhausted and exhilarated both. People offered me drinks, told me stories about their childhoods, affairs, the death of their parents. They took me up to their roofs, made me coffee, showed me things they had written or painted. One stranger cooked me dinner and told me she regretted both of her marriages. “Don’t get married,” she said. “There are more interesting things to do with people.” I’ll never forget the way she kept adjusting a silver pendant around her neck.

At the time I had a nine-to-five job and I’m not sure how I got up on those Monday mornings. Several major media outlets asked to cover Night Call but I declined. I’ve never written or talked about it before. It was private. My interest was to open up a new space between the reader and the poet and between the reader and the poem. I wanted to demystify both. I wanted people, in the privacy of their beds, to encounter the poem like a bedtime story (being read to having been one of the only pleasures of my childhood).

The poems I read were from drafts of my second book, Together and by Ourselves. The strangers in Night Call were the first people to hear it. It’s my favorite book I’ve written and my most personal, too. In some ways I wrote it to survive the change in an important relationship. It’s amazing the things people shared with me when I read them those poems. We usually sat across from each other on top of the bedspread, sometimes about one or two arm-lengths apart, sometimes for long stretches of time, often in silence.

For about a month, in the dead of winter, I went to the Village and Queens and Brooklyn, and almost to Staten Island once but it was too late at that point. Some people I read to ended up becoming my friends. I remember even those I haven’t seen again, which is most of them. I remember what they told me about their lives and I remember their faces. The poem is, of course, a place to remember. It keeps people’s voices and things right there, outside time. And those first hours after midnight, when Night Call would often take place, they feel outside time to me also. It’s a beautiful illusion. The imagination is the only real freedom. That’s what Night Call helped me remember. I had forgotten it too.

 

Alex Dimitrov is the author of three books of poems, including Love and Other Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2021), as well as the chapbook American Boys (Floating Wolf Quarterly, 2012). His work has been published in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Paris Review, and Poetry. He was previously the senior content editor at the Academy of American Poets, where he edited the Poem-a-Day series and American Poets. He has taught creative writing at Princeton University, Columbia University, and New York University, among other institutions. With Dorothea Lasky, he is the coauthor of Astro Poets: Your Guides to the Zodiac (Flatiron Books, 2019). Dimitrov lives in New York City.

Thumbnail: Guillaume Técher

Craft Capsule: What’s So Funny?

by

Kristen Arnett

4.26.21

This is no. 96 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I do not consider myself a craft expert, but I do consider myself an aficionado of the dumb stuff that makes me laugh. Television plots centered on easily solved miscommunications? Check. Dogs that look like they’re smiling? Oh yeah. Writing that asks me to unpack the joke, repackage it, and then try to resell it as a brand-new product? Oh baby, absolutely yes.

There is something compelling about the standard joke format. What is the “standard” joke, you might ask? The best way to describe it is to consider the Dad Joke. Think of puns and silly wordplay. Or the Man Walks Into a Bar format. It’s the knock-knock joke your weird uncle tells at a family barbeque, one you wind up telling your kids years later. It’s the joke that gets modified with each retelling. Its primary purpose is simply that: retelling.

How many ways can you write the joke and still get a laugh?

For example, when I was growing up, my family inherited an ancient computer from my elderly aunt. She had managed to download a virus before gifting it to us, so its main use became listening to an animated bird do an abbreviated stand-up routine. Pete the Repeat Parrot fluttered in vibrant green-pink-yellow, squawking his fool head off, desperate to tell you his one and only zinger. Here is that joke:

“Pete and Repeat sat on a fence. Pete fell off. Who was left?”

Obviously, the answer here (and the joke itself) is found in the Repeat. But the humor came from the trajectory of the experience: It was funny at first because hey, it’s an unexpected joke. After a while, it became funny because our parents got so angry every time the bird popped up and disrupted their work. Further down the line, it was funny for a different reason entirely: The joke embedded itself in the language of our family. “Stop being such a Pete the Repeat,” I’d say when my brother was being especially annoying. The joke expanded, more fascinating than the original. It became its own story and contained its own plot trajectory.

I think about this a lot in my work. How can I repackage the initial premise of a joke in more colorful wrapping and offer it up to the reader as something brand-new? Gifting them the same bit, but a different experience of it? Often this means I need to situationally experience jokes for the first time as my characters experience them. Humor is subjective; it requires background to understand how any person would receive something as funny. As I write, I understand that even if the joke isn’t funny to the characters in the scene, it retains humor for the reader.

Another example: the scene in Rebecca Dinerstein Knight’s novel Hex (Viking, 2020) in which a large mattress is unexpectedly delivered during a dinner party. It’s left awkwardly on the entryway rug and no one knows what to do with it. There’s the joke setup. Later on, a guest at the dinner party exits the entryway bathroom and trips over the mattress, which was not there when he initially entered. That is a use of the mattress in a different comedic way, yet it is still the same joke: weird mattress where it shouldn’t be. The party continues along with the mattress, which gets used as the site of further hilarity. There are drunken secrets told on it, even an impromptu karaoke dance session occurs on its quilted top. Same joke, repackaged and retold to great and hilarious effect.

When considering how humor can sit inside fiction, perhaps imagine it as the same strange and unexpected body wearing different disguises to a costume event. If you can get the joke to put on a fake mustache and successfully reenter the party they have already been kicked out of, perhaps it is worth letting them stick around a while longer. Let them spike the punch. See what other kind of mischief they can get into. I bet it is worth repeating.

 

Kristen Arnett is a queer writer based in Florida. She is the author of the novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House, 2019), which was a New York Times best-seller, and the story collection Felt in the Jaw (Split/Lip Press, 2017). Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, North American Review, Gulf Coast, Guernica, and McSweeney’s, among other publications. Her second novel, With Teeth, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books in June.

Thumbnail: David Waite

Craft Capsule: Body in the Mirror

by

Susan Stinson

3.22.21

This is no. 92 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was an undergraduate, I saw a call for writing about fatness for the anthology Shadow on a Tightrope: Writing by Women on Fat Oppression (Aunt Lute Books, 1983), which became a feminist classic, still in print decades later. I was a young writer who very much wanted to be published. I had been fat all my life. I knew that the shape of my body had been central in defining the shape of my life, but I had no language for how to write or even think about that. The cultural tropes for fat women were virulently dismissive. I knew that they did not represent who I was. The hate language that was regularly shouted at me on the street didn’t either, but I didn’t know how to start to say anything else.

Soon after I graduated, I moved from Colorado to Boston. I got a job at a drugstore and started figuring out how to be a writer. I gave myself the simple assignment to look in the mirror and try to describe myself accurately and, to the best of my ability, without judgment. I chose to do this naked, but the exercise can be equally powerful if the writer is wearing clothes.

It proved to be enormously difficult, both emotionally and because I found that I had extremely limited options for language with which to describe my body. I have said elsewhere that it took participation in grassroots feminism and reading great poets (for me, Gertrude Stein and Walt Whitman) before I could find my belly with my hands and write that it was soft to the touch. Eventually, though, I got there. This is from a lyric essay in my chapbook of poetry and essays, Belly Songs: In Celebration of Fat Women:

My belly pours, hangs, moves, grows hair, shines in marks that fall like fingers curing up around its sides. I am loose, I hang. There are not enough names for the places where my fat gathers on me; there is belly, thigh, hip, chin, but no simple way to say soft-mound-between-breast-and-arms, or low-full-folds-that-are-sides.

I didn’t just observe my body. I also touched it.

I take my belly in my hands. It’s warm. My fingers feel cool, but quickly warm, too. It has a good weight, is soft. I sit very still, and feel the pulse in my thumbs, then find the pulse in the place of my thickest fat. It’s delicate and regular, there, yes, there, yes, there. It comes from the underside where my palms are resting, from the left half and the right half, from veins that curve out the with rest of me. This is not dead lard. It’s my body. It’s my living fat.

Writing Belly Songs opened a vein of literary exploration that eventually resulted in three novels. It changed the way I move through the world too. Having language for fatness—for that aspect of my body I had once understood to be too shameful to speak of—allowed me to begin to know, say, and be more fully who I am. All of that anguished silence was distracting. Living with less of it makes me more present for every other aspect of life. I’ve written about other things, but I know that I’m not done with this topic.

This exercise is useful for any writer. The body is the vessel for all sensory knowledge. Describing one’s physical self with accurate, nuanced attention is like plugging into an electrical socket. There’s a charge. If a writer runs into obstacles to finding language for his, her, or their specific body, then the strategies that arise from grappling with that, or even just touching it lightly, can be revelatory. It has been for me.

 

Susan Stinson is a writer, editor, and teacher. She is the author of four novels, including Spider in a Tree (Small Beer Press, 2013) and Martha Moody (Spinsters Ink Books, 1995; Small Beer Press, 2020). Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Curve, Lambda Literary Review, Seneca Review, and Kenyon Review Online. She is also a recipient of the Outstanding Mid-Career Novelists’ Prize from Lambda Literary. Born in Texas and raised in Colorado, she lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Thumbnail: Oscar Blair

Craft Capsule: Queer Characters Who Behave Badly

by

Peter Kispert

2.15.21

This is no. 88 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

It did not occur to me, while drafting the stories in my debut collection, I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin Books, 2020), that they might ever become a book. I had not considered anyone would ever read or judge or enjoy or review my writing, beyond some appearances in literary magazines. After a few years of writing stale straight characters, I had finally begun to write queer stories featuring queer people, who to my great relief felt alive on the page. Late at night on my bed, a dim bulb flickering in the kitchen, screen light white on my face, I conjured it all up, and let my heart lead. In my fiction, I tried to articulate the truth.

But the “truth” felt slippery, uneasy. My queer characters, as I found them, were often a mess of wiring: self-sabotage, deception, jealousy, rage—crackling in ways that risked flame. In various ways, in different stories, I can still recall the experience of channeling these things as I wrote. Underneath the elation of finishing a story, I wondered: Why am I writing this? I sometimes feared my rendering of queer characters who behaved badly would be confused as an endorsement of that bad behavior, but nonetheless the work consumed me.

While revising I returned to the question of why my queer characters were behaving badly. I held my ear to each scene to see if I could hear a human sound inside. I didn’t want to presuppose that these characters were liars, but many shared a painful compulsion for self-betrayal. It did make me wonder: Does a writer make decisions on the goodness or badness of their characters, and why? How?

One reflex I noticed in drafting was to complicate a one-dimensional character by working away from either direction. This character is “bad” and so should have “good” characteristics. This character is “good” and so we must find a flaw. But I found this approach yielded rote shattered vases, reminiscent of my two-dimensional straight characters, and tended to render in a kind of permanent sketch. A more holistic, embodied approach—without judgment—transported me into their lives, which rang with a conditional joy I found exquisitely rich. I had to let them breathe.

Many of the stories in my book feature a protagonist or narrator whose deceptions serve a great self-betrayal. They must be masculine enough, or successful enough, or have friends because they don’t, or even merely have histories that suggest these things, in order to be or feel deserving of the love they chase. Often the lies become the stuff of these characters’ undoing. They mean the best but fail in their pursuit.

It is sometimes suggested that we write to free ourselves, but this has never interested me. The great freedom of the page was that I did not have to run from what I felt, or once had. Acknowledgment of complexity felt like a kiss. Fiction, stories, had been where I went to be honest, through queer characters who had begun to habituate, at times compulsively, their desires to betray themselves. Imposing a sense of goodness on a character flattened them, suffocating a tenderness and kindness that I found my characters do often possess too. In the middle of Indiana, in the middle of the night, I trained my gaze on only what felt true. From that feeling, eventually, the book emerged.

 

Peter Kispert is the author of the debut story collection I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin Books, 2020), which was selected as a Best Book of the Year by Elle and a Best LGBTQ Book of the Year by O, the Oprah Magazine. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in GQ, Esquire, them, Playboy, and other publications. He is finishing work on his first novel.

Thumbnail: Evie S.

Craft Capsule: Creating a Seasonal Writing Practice

by

Khadijah Queen

1.4.21

This is no. 84 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

The pandemic, social uprisings, and a volatile political climate—superimposed upon family and work responsibilities, as well as health challenges—has made a regular writing practice impossible over the past ten months. Essays I pitched early in the year didn’t materialize, and only a handful of terribly sad poems arrived in usable condition. The one longform piece I did finish—a zuihitsu that appeared in Harper’s—was about the pandemic, written in April and May as I worried terribly about the health and safety of family members who were sick, and some who are still frontline workers. As a relatively prolific writer, with six published books since 2008 and four more currently in various stages of completion, I’m trying to see my current lack of time and energy to write as a side effect of all that’s happening in the world, but I don’t want to give up on a regular writing practice. To that end, I want to reenvision possibilities for that practice while taking into account the new reality. 

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to adapt to complicated circumstances; I’ve tried many different kinds of writing practices over the past two decades. My early years of writing consisted of recording lines on my lunch breaks and during lulls at my day jobs, and a few minutes in my car before entering the house in the evening. When my son got older, I somehow managed six years of a daily writing practice, usually a half hour at 5:30 AM with a cup of tea and a blueberry muffin. When I had an emergency appendectomy in 2015, my writing routine tanked as I recovered. Slowly I built back up to weekend flurries, and that lasted long enough for me to complete my fifth book. Then I wrote during intensely concentrated weeks and months for three and a half years of doctoral study, resulting in one book of poetry, the first draft of a memoir and a 270-page critical dissertation by the end of 2019. After all that writing, all I wanted was a break, so I took a couple of months. Then the pandemic happened, and the writing—didn’t. As a person who really needs an intentional writing routine, I felt at a loss. 

How, with mounting caregiving, health issues and work responsibilities, would I fit in regular writing time? I struggled for months, until I hit upon the one thing I hadn’t tried yet—seasons. Thinking in terms of seasons avoids the specificity (and requisite pressure) of calendar dates and days of the week. A seasonal practice could preserve writing goals more gently and flexibly. It might include thematic prompts—write about lightness and travel in summer, or perhaps reflect on freedom; focus on renewal and revisit the pastoral or the aubade in spring; delve into darkness, list modes of comfort, and maybe address grief in winter; autumn writing might spotlight transformation and beauty. Autumn is my favorite season. I love wearing knee boots and turtleneck sweaters and leather gloves, love the early October riot of color in the trees. You can of course define for yourself what each season means. Collect keywords over the year that can provide lasting inspiration. 

Let’s also pause here and define “writing goals.” For me that’s mostly meant books, and that hasn’t changed. But I’ve had to think smaller when it comes to productivity even as I continue to envision larger projects. To avoid becoming overwhelmed, maybe I’ll choose a single element to work on, such as order, or beginnings and endings. For a seasonal practice, choosing writing goals that can be adjusted as needed, and granting yourself the easement of non-specified time to work, seems more than reasonable right now.  

If you have an impending deadline in early February, maybe you’ll work only on the coldest days, when outside pursuits aren’t accessible. In summer, if you enjoy writing outside like I do, choose the sunniest days to work on a patio, or at a socially distant café. If you have a deadline that isn’t urgent, try softening it. Make one date—or date range!—for a first draft, another for draft two, another for draft three. After each draft, especially if it’s spring, buy yourself fresh flowers. Get as much done as you can, then reward yourself with an evening walk or morning drive, weather permitting. These are just a few basic suggestions, and you can adjust goals (and rewards) as you go along. I happen to like dark chocolate, so that’s my default treat. Make a list of yours and have it ready along with those seasonal keywords. I firmly believe we need as many reminders as possible that part of the work of writing is allowing for mental space, for infusions of beauty, for intentional nourishment—physical and otherwise. During these incredibly challenging times, I would wager that flexibility rules the day. Don’t abuse grace, of course; communicate clearly and continue to commit to due dates with integrity, but also make use of kindness—given, and received.

 

Khadijah Queen is the author of six books, including Anodyne (Tin House, 2020) and I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On (YesYes Books, 2017). Her writing has also appeared in American Poetry Review, BuzzFeed, Fence, Poetry, and Tin House, among other publications. Holding a PhD in English from the University of Denver and an MFA from Antioch University, she teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and for Regis University’s Mile High MFA program.

Thumbnail: Oliver Hihn

Craft Capsule: Writing Hot

by

Jordan Kisner

11.30.20

This is no. 80 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was a writing student, a professor once commented to me that my writing was a little intense. I don’t remember exactly what he said, and he wasn’t unkind, but it was something like “Your writing is always at eleven,” or “Your writing is always just so hot-blooded.” 

This comment elicited a mixed reaction at the time. I wasn’t proud. I didn’t sense that this was a compliment. He was giving me a note: Learn to tone it down sometimes. It felt respectful in its way, as if he were saying, “Okay, you can write like your hair is on fire, but make sure that’s not the only thing you can do.” Which is a good and teacherly thing to do, to discourage a student from leaning too heavily on the thing that feels good, to point out tics and habits. But as a young writer—a female writer, a queer writer—to hear an older male professor note that your work is unrelentingly intense can set off a clamor of questions, insecurities, suspicions, irritations, doubts, shames. This is maybe especially the case when the young writer is writing (as I was) about her own life and self, the source of this overmuchness. 

So I was a little embarrassed, concerned that “intense” was code for melodramatic, maudlin, tacky, purple. Childish. Overfeminine. Hysterical. But also, I wanted to be an intense writer. What was the point of writing if it wasn’t vivid and compelling, if it wasn’t transporting, if it didn’t make you rock back in your seat? I wrote then, and write now, I suppose, to express an intensity to the condition of being, an aliveness that feels full and bewildering. 

After that, though, I spent several years trying to write in a way that was hot-blooded, or full of feeling, but also somehow cool. Writing that was fierce and ardent while being unimpeachably in control of itself. I’ve tried a few ways to do this over the years. The first, maybe, we’ll call The Didion method: Bury feeling in a near-hysterical radiance of detail or texture when describing absolutely mundane things like sock brands; directly reference imminent emotional breakdown (or past breakdown) in prose so deadpan and commanding it seems like possibly a complex joke. Then there is what we might call The Nelson: Go straight to eleven, get poetic and hot about sex, love, heartbreak, pain, and then stave off accusations of mawkishness with theory and academically rigorous discussions of the sex. 

I love both these methods—and Joan Didion and Maggie Nelson—but lately I’ve been thinking about what you lose when you insist on cooling down your prose. Early this summer I had a conversation with Ocean Vuong on my Thresholds podcast during which he spoke about his reclamation of prose that some might dismiss as purple. “I am interested in using a style that a lot of men have deemed too prissy for them to use in the present,” he told me. “It feels like drag to me—to be extra! There’s too much glitter because we want to be blindingly present and seen.” He was speaking about the historical moment when emotional and beautiful writing was deemed feminine and therefore less worthy, and the way that as a [queer] man he might begin to excavate and subvert that. He reminded me, also, that you can find fun and even joy in just going ahead and writing at eleven, writing hot, writing like your hair is on fire—to be blindingly present and seen.  

 

Jordan Kisner is the author of the essay collection Thin Places (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). Her writing has also appeared in the Atlantic, the Believer, the Guardian, n+1, the New York Times Magazine, and the Paris Review Daily. The recipient of fellowships from Pioneer Works, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Art Omi, she is currently a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas. 

Thumbnail: Dmitry Bayer

Craft Capsule: On Becoming a Pop Star, I Mean, a Poet

by

Chen Chen

11.2.20

This is no. 77 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

1. I started to write poetry because of a secret that I had trouble sharing even with myself.

2. I continue to write poetry because, in the fifth grade, my short story about a pregnant witch living in Venice received the following peer critique: “You do know it takes nine months for the baby to grow inside the mom, not two?” I write poetry because I wish I’d responded, “You do know this is a witch baby???” 

3. I knew I would always be a poet after a barely audible “goodbye” in the doorway of a tenth-floor apartment. How there was no elevator and it was the middle of summer and I had to walk down and down those stairs. 

4. I wake up craving poetry because Sawako Nakayasu once said, “I work mostly in poetry because it claims to be neither fiction nor nonfiction, because it acknowledges the gap between what really was or is, and what is said about it.”1 

5. Poetry because French class, Russian class. Because Mandarin and English and Hokkien at home. Because English. Because I learn and learn, then forget so much Mandarin. Because I forgot all my Hokkien2 by age seven. Poetry because my first-year advisor in college, a professor of Russian Studies, asked me why all my three-page Tolstoy responses were so late. “Go on,” she said, “give us your narrative.” Poems because I loved how her prompt was a comment on the expected form of my response. Poet because I said, “Time management’s an issue,” which really meant I wanted every paper to be about everything and I wanted Takeshi Kaneshiro’s character in Chungking Express and I wanted Takeshi Kaneshiro and was rewatching the film over and over and Googling stills. 

6. In eighth grade I began writing poetry outside of school assignments because I couldn’t keep imitating Robert Frost. I kept writing poetry because it seemed no one else with a secret like this looked like me.

7. Poet because I am a failed musician. Failed painter. Failed scientist obsessed with the moon.3 Failed gymnast, though once I was very, very good at cartwheeling. Poetry because my favorite scenes in Power Rangers were when, instead of running, they all backflipped and backflipped to where the fighting would take place.

8. The violence of the state. The silence of the h in French words, like homme. How violent, many homes. To ask, “Where is home?” as if it’s ever a simple question. To say, “I have a home” as if it’s an unremarkable statement. To say “I have” in Russian, you use a genitive construction that translates to the awkward English, “At me there is.” At home the adults asked, “Why did you get an A-?” in three different languages; there were no questions about whether I would ever start hating myself for what and whom I loved.   

9. I continue to read poetry because it seems every poem has a big secret at its core and I always want to know if it’s a big gay secret. Because Anna Akhmatova wrote, “Sunset in the ethereal waves: / I cannot tell if the day / is ending, or the world, or if / the secret of secrets is inside me again”4 and that seems pretty gay to me. Because Denise Levertov wrote, “Two girls discover / the secret of life / in a sudden line of / poetry”5 and that sounds definitely gay. 

Because for years I had to settle for subtext and total projection. 

Because when I found Justin Chin’s Bite Hard in a college library, I glanced at just one poem then added the book to my stack to check out. Because I moved it to the middle of the stack, as if hiding it from both the sky and the ground. Because I was so moved to see both “Chinese New Year” and “ex-boyfriends” in one poem. Because was it hide or protect, and do I know the difference now? 

10. In English, I still have trouble with lie versus lay, which I always feel ashamed to admit, though I know English is a troublesome, troubling language that makes one want to lay down, to lie one’s body on its side till all one’s lies have tumbled out from one’s head and belly, and are lain out like one single shadow-body of a liar on the grass. 

11. I started off as a fiction writer. 

12.  I started as a reader of fantastical literature, a writer of both fantasy and science fiction. I started on the playground, telling friends that the jungle gym was a spaceship and we’d better hurry onboard before it took off: “Danny, you’re new to the cause, like me. Amanda, you’re the chosen one, our only hope.” I couldn’t get enough of the galactic, magic, any-kind-of-epic mission; the dueling-with-lasers-or-wands journey. I acted them out, wrote them down. 

Moments of poetry occurred in my stories when I stayed too long in the pocket dimension of an emotion; when I strayed too far into the magic of an image; when I mismanaged the time and leapt through the wormhole/plot-hole back to my implausible Venice and its witch baby. Poetry erupted when I couldn’t keep performing the narrative I was supposed to—that of a boy who liked Amandas, not Dannys. 

13. Looking back, dueling with lasers or wands sounds definitely phallic. 

14. I became a poet after my friends no longer wanted to play the games we made up. After they decided to only play games that would help them grow up. But growing up, for me, meant no longer just playing at, dancing around what I desired. And some days I wanted to grow up. And some days I wanted to die. 

15. I had to Google “coming out.” I had to Google “lie vs. lay.” I had to Google “gay and Asian” and found mainly what white men had to say about bodies like mine. I had to Google “gay Asian American literature.” I had to Google “queer.” I had to Google “fag.” I had to search for one sentence with “I” that eventually I could say out loud. 

16. Poems became my favorite way of telling stories because poems can tell a secret and talk about telling that secret and along the way become another secret.

17. Of course, all this can and does happen in other genres too. And when I write poems I’m drawing on aspects of fantastical fiction, autobiography, realist fiction, standup comedy, Tolstoy as much as Takeshi Kaneshiro, TV shows that got way too many seasons, and elements I don’t want to be able to name. In recent years, lots of prose poems and lyric essay–esque pieces have been showing their blocky faces to me. And very recently, a teensy spoonful of fiction. To call myself poet just makes the most sense, personally, creatively. Poet is where I feel freest to do this and that and wtf.

18. Some nights I just want to be an international sex symbol/pop star with Grammy-worthy vocal chops but still a ton of totally relatable habits, like eating bread. I envy the pop song that can end simply6 by repeating its chorus over and over, slowly fading out yet also burrowing itself into your ear. 

19. A barely audible “hey” in the collapsed year. The violence of state-sanctioned language. My own unbroken, snowy silences. To ask “Where is home?” as if there is one answer. To write home in a poem, like a poem could be a home—is this happy or sad? Strange yet not uncommon, to weep with and into joy. A form of power, a kind of language: to weep and disobey silence. My favorite silence is a space for thought, is spaciousness. A wormhole named Maybe. A parallel galaxy called Another Way. 

20. I continue to poet because now I have all these poet friends who’ll text me to ask what poems I’m writing and I have to start writing again so they’ll stop bugging me and I never want them to stop. 

I continue to poet because I’m not satisfied with the definitions behind, the narratives around “coming out,” “lie vs. lay,” “gay and Asian,” “gay Asian American literature,” “queer,” “fag.” I am always trying to say the everything I’ve lived, am living, but I never want to feel like I’ve said it all. 

For years I believed poetry was the only place where I could be all my selves, any self. I wrote, trying to answer the question, “How can a poem hold the myriad me’s and realms and loves and ferocities and shards and velocities—this whole multiverse that the life cannot, yet?” But can a poem do this? A book of poems? Is poetry a place? 

I am a poet because I ask poetry to do too much, and then it does it. 

 

ENDNOTES

1. From a working note that prefaced a set of Nakayasu’s poems published in How2
2. Except what my parents call each other. 
3. What joy! Poets! Not caring one bit how annoying we are when we go on and on about the moon!
4. “A land not mine,” translated by Jane Kenyon in
From Room to Room (Alice James Books, 1978). 
5. “The Secret” in
O Taste and See (New Directions, 1964). 
6. With the best pop music, this is no simple feat; the chorus has to be excellent.

 

Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), which was longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry and won the Publishing Triangle Thom Gunn Award. His work has appeared in many publications, including Poetry and the 2015 and 2019 editions of The Best American Poetry. He has received a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from Kundiman and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at Brandeis University as the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence. 

Thumbnail: Romain Gille

Craft Capsule: We Are All Translators

by

Jenny Bhatt

9.21.20

This is no. 73 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Literary translation is about being a close reader in the source language and a skilled writer in the target language. Of course, a language is not merely words, phrases, idioms, diction, and syntax. Languages contain entire cultures within them, entire ways of thinking and being, too. Those of us who translate other writers’ works do so because we want to dive deep and fully immerse ourselves in another world—to pay attention to more than the literal content and preserve the emotions, cultural nuances, and humor from the source to target language.  

This is not unlike how, as readers and writers, we seek to inhabit the worlds of fictional characters. We are all translators. The process of reading involves translating and interpreting the writer’s meaning and intent. The process of writing involves interpreting and giving voice to our own thoughts, which are guided by the things we have read, seen, heard, and experienced. As Mexican poet Octavio Paz famously wrote, “No text is entirely original because language itself, in its essence, is already a translation: firstly, of the nonverbal world and secondly, since every sign and every phrase is the translation of another sign and another phrase.”

Due to the accretions of traditions and culture over centuries, it is not possible to seamlessly transpose two languages when translating. Similarly, due to our conditioning and subjectivity, it is not possible for two readers to read the same text entirely the same way. And it is not possible for two writers to create entirely the same story. A single piece of writing can have multiple acceptable readings and translations due to the flexibility of language, suppleness of imagination, and versatility of craft techniques. 

I was a writer before I became a translator. But I learned to appreciate linguistic, aesthetic, and cultural diversity more profoundly because of translation work. There are ten key practices of the discipline that pull me in each time:

1. Reading a work closely and repetitively to know it, sometimes even better than the original writer.

2. Listening to the tonalities, textures, rhythms, cadences, and diction in both languages to capture the writer’s voice as fully as possible.

3. Learning nuanced meanings of words and phrases in the target language by seeing them used with different specificity and significance in the source language.

4. Hunting for le mot juste that honors the complexities of both languages.

5. Discovering aesthetic reinterpretations of an original work to suit a new readership or audience linguistically, intellectually, and intuitively. 

6. Deliberating over the subtexts, cultural implications, and stylistic choices made by the original writer in the source language to recreate them in the target language without losing any literary merit.

7. Interrogating the politics of the writer, their text, and the source and target languages.

8. Meditating on the original writer’s themes to convey them with the proper intentions and emotions.

9. Deepening my understanding of the world, past and present, by transforming something foreign into something familiar.

10. Negotiating with what remains untranslatable.

With only one book of translation and a handful of shorter works completed, I am still developing these practices into technical proficiencies. However, as each translation project helps me hone and refine my skills, I am also leveraging these lessons more frequently in my reading and writing. Literary translation is, in the end, about actively co-creating a text with its original writer by adding more shape, context, nuance, and texture to it. Aren’t we all better off as readers if we learn to do the same? And aren’t we stronger writers when we draw from, build onto, and expand upon the world of literature that has come before us?

 

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, translator, and literary critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast and the author of the short story collection Each of Us Killers (7.13 Books, 2020). Her literary translation of Gujarati writer Dhumketu’s best short fiction is forthcoming from HarperCollins India in late 2020. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers Magazine, the Millions, Electric Literature, the Rumpus, and Kenyon Review. Having lived and worked in India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the United States, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas.

Thumbnail: Patrick Tomasso

Craft Capsule: Doors vs. Corridors

by

Will Harris

8.17.20

This is no. 68 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

During the pandemic, with so many doors locked and shuttered, I lived in the corridors of my house. Thom Gunn describes the corridor as a “separate place between the thought and felt”—a place of uncertainty, where thoughts are unformed and feelings suppressed. It’s probably not surprising, then, that the few poems I managed to eke out were meandering, confused, and muffled.

As the architecture of my house extended into what I wrote, I started looking for poems about houses—either set indoors or using the “house” as a metaphor for the craft of poetry. I was trying to work out what kind of house poetry should be, and how much confusion that house might be able to contain. Soon enough I turned to Emily Dickinson: 

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

I always read this stanza with the ironic hint of the estate agent in her tone (“Superior—for Doors” is particularly funny), which seems to mock the idea you could ever really compare poetry to a house. Though it can feel like using a conceit means committing to it entirely, here the analogy is loosely held, self-consciously tenuous: “If you look to your right, you’ll see some windows. How many? Numerous. And if you look down there, yup, superior doors. You won’t get that with Prose.” The lightness of tone is part of the image she projects about poetry. 

But I read it with another, darker Dickinson poem in the back of my head, this one taking the house less as a metaphor for poetry than for the poet’s interior life:

One need not be a Chamber – to be haunted – 
One need not be a House –
The Brain has Corridors – surpassing 
Material Place

These lines suggest that when you forgo “Material Place” and build your house in “Possibility” you open yourself up to a particular danger: being haunted. Where the other poem began with a confident assertion of habitation—“I dwell”—here the speaker expresses horror at the idea of being dwelt in: “The Brain has Corridors.” The tone is repetitious, fevered, as though the speaker has been running up and down their internal corridors for hours. The effect of this is compounded by the use of the impersonal pronoun “One” and that definite article before “Brain”—not my brain but the brain—which suggests a traumatic detachment from the body; and “surpassing,” hanging at the end of the line makes it feel like those brain corridors are only getting bigger, longer, more labyrinthine. 

What’s missing from the second poem is a door of the kind Dickinson thought made poetry so superior—and without one, there’s no means of escape. Door and corridor may sound related but there’s no etymological link between them. The word door comes from the Old English duru and has always meant the same thing. Corridor is from the Italian corridoio, referring to a “running-place.” They represent two forms of possibility, each reliant on the other: The door is a portal, signifying insight, while the corridor is an in-between place, signifying uncertainty and confusion. 

An important way to understand the corridor might be via the horror film in which a shadowy figure always seems to be lurking at the other end, or the protagonist is trapped, running down an endless dark passage full of locked doors. Where the corridor represents terror, the door is freedom.

*

During lockdown I also turned to Bhanu Kapil’s book How to Wash a Heart and stopped at this section:

When what you perform 
At the threshold
Is at odds 
With what happens
When the front door is closed,
Then you are burning
The toast 
And you are letting the butter
Fester.

The front door is where the internal becomes public, even if briefly. But in order for an act to be meaningful, what you “perform” at the threshold must have some relationship to what happens behind it. Kapil’s lines make me think of those people in expensive houses who voted to privatize Britain’s National Health Service last December and then stepped out onto their doorsteps this spring to clap enthusiastically in support of nurses and carers. They make me think of what the threshold can conceal. The door only has meaning in relation to the corridor.

In early July, Bhanu and I did a reading together on Zoom. She began hers by lighting a small candle. She had some shallots next to her that she’d picked from Wittgenstein’s garden in Cambridge. The effect of these gestures wasn’t just to welcome the listener in. It was to create an open space into which the poem could emerge, where we could meet it. In trying to harmonize inner and outer, in letting out what festers, the distance between our two screens fell away.

After the reading, I thought back to Dickinson’s haunted house poem. It’s driven by a claustrophobic fear of the internal. Even the “External Ghost” or hidden “Assassin” (other threats that feature in Dickinson’s poem) are less terrifying than the prospect of “self encounter.” The self is a more ambiguous, volatile element. It could stay hidden forever: “Ourself, behind ourself concealed,” reads one line in the poem. You might think you’ve turned a corner, the front door in sight, only to find yourself lost down another passageway. 

But this is only a nightmare if you’re looking for a door. The beauty of Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart lies in its openness: “I want to be split / Into two parts / Or a thousand pieces.” The self that’s been split into a thousand pieces has nothing to lose. What’s not whole cannot be broken. Likewise, the poem doesn’t have to form a coherent whole—a portal to insight. It doesn’t have to involve finding the right door and standing outside of it proudly. It can also mean walking the corridors, afraid and confused.

 

Will Harris is the author of the poetry collection RENDANG (Wesleyan University Press, 2020), which was selected as a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. He has worked in schools and led workshops at the Southbank Centre and currently teaches for the Poetry School. A contributing editor at the Rialto, he lives in London. 

Thumbnail: Kilarov Zaneit

Craft Capsule: The Authority of Black Childhood

by

Joy Priest

7.6.20

This is no. 64 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Outside / its case, the mind is a beehive / fallen in the wild grasses / of an abandoned playground.

— from “Ars Poetica” by Joy Priest

It’s January 2, 2020. I’m traveling by car with a painter back to the artists’ compound that I’m staying at for a seven-month residency—a blip-stage between the MFA I finished in May 2019 and the PhD I will start in August 2020, a deliberate detour in the longer academic-poet road on which I find myself. About it, slightly in mourning. Alone in study, but wholeheartedly wanting to be closer to the people in this poetry thing.

The painter has found a way to subsist outside the university engine, working in the residency office, leading Zumba classes in the morning, painting in her studio at night. We’re talking about what academia does to artists, and, as we’re riding—from Wellfleet back to Provincetown, at the very tip of the Cape, isolated at the end of the land—she says, “I really do feel like this chapter for me has been about unlearning.”

*

“Sometimes a moment of liberation is suspended by the tight grip of contradiction,” my friend Bernardo says, which captures this moment I have in the car with the painter, as well as the larger social context we’re sailing through like a tiny, mobile dot on the periphery of the U.S. map. I was liberated by the painter’s articulation but jealous that I hadn’t pulled it out of my subconscious first: unlearning. This had been my project for the first three months of the fellowship, but I’d thought I was wasting time because that project had not yet been named. Wasting time—a feeling shaped by the values of academia, a microcosm of our larger society and its ailing imagination, which burdens artists and writers with paradigms of productivity and surplus contributions to an inaccessible archive. I had been unlearning that.

*

Usually, when stuck in a vehicle, poetry-talk is boring at worst, frustrating at best. A Lyft driver or seatmate on a plane will inevitably ask, “When did you start writing poetry?” I find this frustrating because I haven’t yet crafted a creative approach to the question, but, more importantly, because such a question precludes the true answer.

*

I was a better poet when I was a child.

During the nineties in Kentucky, I was a child in solitude. There was a lack of artificial stimuli, my technology limited to a Sega Genesis that I spent more time blowing dust from than playing. My single mother was at work. The only other person in the house was my grandfather, a man in his seventies, who—I didn’t know at the time—was white. He defined our relationship with board games, puzzles, basketball, or boxing on a box TV set—the technology of his time. With his racist perspectives, he attempted to define my identity, which I didn’t yet understand, but felt, intuitively. 

In place of understanding, in place of the internet, I cultivated a practice in noticing. This is how I developed my approach to the page, before I had an awareness of “craft.” Poetry wasn’t what I did or what I started doing in a single moment from the past onward, it was the way I thought, who I had to be in my grandfather’s household, the way my mind worked to make sense of something.

There isn’t a single event that led to me becoming a poet. There isn’t a beginning to me writing poetry—there is only the beginner’s mind. This is what I find myself trying to get back to in my unlearning: the authority of a child’s imagination—what we possess before we are fully indoctrinated into adulthood and the accepted ways of making sense of things. 

*

I spent a lot of time outside of my grandfather’s house, in the backyard. My mind was a beehive. A chaotic, intuitive knot of thought-impulses that I needed to wrest apart, investigate, ruminate on, understand. I found myself watching the ants at ground-level, making a daily visit to the carpenter bees and their perfectly round holes in the rotting wood. 

When I was inside, I noticed the difference between my grandfather’s skin and mine. I knew my hair was more like the hair of darker people, who he was always saying bad things about. I knew that he didn’t want me to be like them, but I couldn’t understand why. I couldn’t understand why, but I could notice. I kept a record of these little noticings as a substitute for clarity around what I was noticing. This conversation with myself as a Black child supplemented what I learned, or what adults sought to teach me (what a white child learns or is taught by white adults). This practice of noticing, or overhearing, was my seminal craft approach. 

*

Pulling away the scaffolding of craft “knowledge,” which I’ve accumulated as an adult poet, has led me to this—notebooks full of little noticings and meditations, overhearings and mishearings, notions that haunt me, lines that keep coming up. Writing a poem this way becomes less strained: that accumulation of craft had become a cheesecloth through which I struggled to write. 

These little noticings are the only way I wish to start a poem, or any conversation about craft. It is how I get closer to an understanding of what something or someone—my imaginary friend, my ancestors, my intuition, the flora and fauna—is trying to tell me, and I embrace this as a spiritual craft as well as a technical one. It is my resistance to the limits of the U.S. popular imagination, which condescends to the childhood imagination in tropes and shorthand, which does not know, can no longer remember, what the child knows.

 

Joy Priest is the author of Horsepower, which won the 2019 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press in September. Her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in numerous publications, including BOAAT, Connotation Press, Four Way Review, espnW, Gulf Coast, Mississippi Review, and Poetry Northwest, and have been anthologized in The Louisville Anthology (Belt Publishing, September 2020), A Measure of Belonging: Writers of Color on the New American South (Hub City Press, October 2020) and Best New Poets 2014, 2016, and 2019. A doctoral student in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston, Priest has also been a journalist, a theater attendant, a waitress, and a fast food worker. She has facilitated writing workshops and arbitration programs with adult and juvenile incarcerated women, and has taught composition, rhetoric, comedy, and African American arts and culture at the university level.

Thumbnail: Dustin Humes

Craft Capsule: Notes From the Cutting Room Floor

by

Sejal Shah

5.18.20

This is no. 60 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

An essay collection consists of more than several pieces between two covers. There is always the ghost manuscript: what is cut, what has been moved, shaped, revised. In my first book, This Is One Way to Dance, there are notes at the end of the text—they are narrative, include sources for quoted material, acknowledge readers and editors, and are not numbered. This essay is another kind of commentary. Each piece rewrites what came before. In a way, I am still rewriting my book and its notes—notes to oneself, to one’s reader, you; they are a conversation. 

I wrote the first draft of this essay in longhand; later, I typed it. At some point, I began numbering my thoughts as a way of keeping track. When I cut and pasted different sections of the text, I preserved the original numbers to trace the movement of information. In doing so, I attempt to show my writing process in the tradition of visible mending.

1. In Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, there are footnotes. There are three epigraphs at the beginning, each on a different page (I love this, the space). Many of the footnotes lead to Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. The chapters are short, sometimes only a page, and the footnotes don’t feel like an interruption, but pleasurable, recursive reading. There is an overture disavowing prologues. After the overture is a gorgeous prologue: “The memoir is at its core, an act of resurrection. Memoirists…manipulate time; resuscitate the dead. They put themselves, and others, into necessary context.” If I had read In the Dreamhouse while working on my book, I might have written a different prologue. So many beats to a book, architecture, a tonal range, a key. All of these elements are questions that ask: Who is your audience? To whom and how do I wish to explain myself?1 

3. Are prologues and codas forms of notes? Is an introduction?

20. Here is a ghost note, something I cut from the introduction of my book: “I grew up seeing and later studying with Garth Fagan Dance. A noted choreographer, Fagan is associated with the Black Arts Movement. Fagan technique draws from ballet, modern dance, and Afro-Caribbean dance. I learned: You could invent your own language. You didn’t have to fit yourself into someone else’s forms. You didn’t have to explain yourself.”

4. I wanted my notes to go before the acknowledgments, to be part of the body of This Is One Way to Dance. In the published copy, my notes follow the acknowledgments, per the press’s house style, which is The Chicago Manual of Style. I realize I don’t believe in style manuals.

17. Somewhere in a book (an introduction) or outside it (an interview), you will have to explain why you wrote your book. At each stage of the publishing process you use a different form: a proposal, a press sheet, a preface, a prologue, an afterward, a Q&A. Sometimes I still stumble. From the preface of Sonja Livingston’s memoir, Ghostbread: “I wrote this book because the pain and power and beauty of childhood inspire me. I wrote it selfishly, to make sense of chaos. I wrote it unselfishly, to bear witness. For houses and gardens and children most of us never see.” 

Part of me wants to never explain anything. Part of me worries I have explained too much and still missed what is most important. The settling and unsettling of the self. Navigating, meditating, mediating. Not identity, but movement. A book, through architecture or by words, must instruct the reader in how to read it. Both are important.

2. For a book review, I remember finding out, after already reading far into the text, that a glossary and notes existed at the back. This changed my reading of the book. With no table of contents and no superscript numbers, how would you know to look for notes and a glossary? Do you flip to the back of the book to see what happens, in case you die before you finish reading,2 in order to know what something means?

4. (a) My book ends with the last sentence of the notes: “And there are many reasons to dance.” 

5. I am talking to my friend Prageeta Sharma, a poet, about notes. She mentions Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, which begins with a section called “[A Note].” Blanchfield writes, “At the end of this book there is a rolling endnote called ‘Correction.’ It sets right much—almost certainly not all—of what between here and there I get wrong. It runs to twenty-one pages. It may still be running.” This feels true to me about writing a book. Trying to right it, but in the end, it’s a series of notations and corrections, assertions and deletions. Traces.

6. The poet Rick Barot told me his second book had notes. Not his first and third. And not his fourth, the most recent, The Galleons. He says he is anti-notes now.3 I get that.

28. Are notes like parentheses? (Say it clearly or not at all.) 

7. The writer Michael Martone wrote a book called Michael Martone, and the chapters are written in the style of “Contributors’ Notes” and his contributors’ notes are stories. Contributors’ notes are stories we tell about ourselves; they are fictions. 

10. How are notes different than sources? I wrote notes for many of my essays, but not all of them. Notes were sometimes meant to be a place to credit sources, but they also became their own commentary. They sprawled. I credit writing prompts, editors, readers, and books. Some of that could have been folded into acknowledgments. I credited sources for titles and images. I wrote about the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage during the time and day of our ceremony and why this mattered to me. Actually, that was a kind of afterward.

13. I am writing for the kind of people who read notes. Those are my readers, my people. 

16. (a) In my book there is a coda titled “Voice Texting With My Mother.” I did not title it a coda. At some point I lost track of what needed a classification or title and what could exist as part of the invisible architecture of the book.

18. In her short “A Note from the Author,” Tyrese Coleman writes: “How to Sit [a Memoir in Stories and Essays] challenges the concept that a distinction needs to be made when the work is memory-based, because memories contain their own truth regardless of how they are documented.” 

9. This winter I read Cathy Park Hong’s book of essays, Minor Feelings. I realized, when I reached the end of the book, I had been expecting notes. Her essays are muscular, theoretical, personal, and include history, cultural commentary, friendships, family, and literature—a whole essay on the artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and her cross-genre memoir, Dictée. It surprised me to learn I liked the lack of notes in her book. It meant theorists and sources were often foregrounded in the essays themselves. In Hong’s work I saw a different model—the essay as a “coalitional form.” A model that foregrounds voices and perspectives beyond the essayist’s own—one that she credits writers in the tradition of Hilton Als, James Baldwin, and Maggie Nelson. 

19. An introduction is like a toast at a wedding. No, I cannot satisfactorily address so many audiences—pivot—who is an introduction for? Why not just begin? Whose job is it to host?

27. I read the acknowledgments and the notes in most books. I want to know how a book came together.

22. Sometimes I skim the notes.

14. I have to be honest: I am intrigued by the idea of no notes. Maybe for the next book.

 

ENDNOTES

1. After I turned in my proofs last December, I read Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings. Hong writes about Myung Mi Kim, “the first poet who said I [Hong] didn’t need to sound like a white poet nor did I have to ‘translate’ my experiences so that they sounded accessible to a white audience…Illegibility was a political act.” Yes. I believe this.
2. What Harry does in
When Harry Met Sally.
3. [E-mail from Rick] “When I say I’m now ‘anti-notes,’ this mostly refers to my last book, 
The Galleons. There’s a lot of background research in the book, but I didn’t want a notes section to make the book seem like a ‘project’ book.  After all, my research for the book was driven by lyrical sentiment and opportunity—it wasn’t systematic…”

 

Sejal Shah’s debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, will be published by the University of Georgia Press in June. Her writing can be found in Brevity, Conjunctions, Guernica, Kenyon Review, the Literary Review, the Margins, and the Rumpus. She is also the recipient of a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in fiction. Shah is on the faculty of The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University, and lives in Rochester, New York. 

Thumbnail: Judith Browne

Craft Capsule: Reading Backwards

by

Carter Sickels

3.30.20

This is no. 54 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was getting my MFA many years ago, a member of the workshop passed on a piece of advice he’d once heard: Read your manuscript backwards. At the time, I didn’t pay much attention (he was a bit of a know-it-all), but the advice stuck with me, clanging around in my brain, and I’ve since turned to it when line editing and hammering out bigger structural issues.

Reading backwards doesn’t mean you read from right to left, or from the bottom of the page to the top. What I do is print out the manuscript, start with the top of the last page, and work my way back to page one. This exercise works differently for me depending on where I am in the process. When I have a final draft, reading backwards helps with line editing. When I read backwards, I use my brain in a different way, and it slows down my reading. I focus on the words, not the story, and spot repetition and unnecessary words.

Reading backwards has also helped me resolve structural issues and build narrative tension. I was struggling with a short story I’d been trying to write for months. It wasn’t working but I couldn’t figure out why. I let the manuscript sit and cool, like a hot potato; when I returned to it after a few more months, I tried the backwards reading trick. The ending of the story worked, but how did I get there? There were holes in the plot, and too much exposition that glossed over important information. The first-person narrator, so focused on his lover, never stepped up or revealed any insight into his own interior. I hadn’t written any scenes with him alone or with other characters. These backwards-reading discoveries helped me restructure and revise the story; I cut exposition, wrote new scenes, and rearranged the scenes I already had to amplify the tension. 

When I’m stuck I’ll try looking at the story from a fresh angle—whether reading backwards, changing the font, hanging pages on the wall or spreading them out on the floor. I read the entire manuscript aloud. I retype. These are all ways to trick myself into approaching the novel from a different place. Sometimes it works. And when it does, it’s like seeing the project with a new pair of eyes—catching what I missed, or discovering a hidden door that leads me to the true story. 

 

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including Guernica, Bellevue Literary Review, Green Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Amie LeeKing

Craft Capsule: Consulting the Tarot

by

Emma Copley Eisenberg

2.24.20

This is no. 50 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I was raised in a house of reason where there was no God, no witchcraft, no science fiction, no astrology, and certainly no tarot. These things were for the weak, and we were not weak. But I’ll never forget when I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and it dawned on me why Tom prayed so much: He was just trying to get through the day. I was weak, I knew. To make it from dawn to dusk, I too needed all the help I could get. 

Tarot came into my life through the friend, the friend I lost, and it is the thing she gave me more than any other for which I offer her my supreme gratitude. To be fair, I acquired the deck itself—The Wild Unknown by Kim Krans—much earlier; I bought it on impulse late one night on the gushing recommendation of someone I’d met at a party. You are not supposed to buy a tarot deck for yourself, I learned later, perhaps because without the blessing of someone you love to imbue the paper and images with power, a deck of cards is just a deck of cards.

I cannot now separate tarot from the friend, and I cannot separate tarot from writing. She and I became friends during the period when the card of the moon, which according to my deck “encompasses the idea of the Wild Unknown,” was my near constant companion. She taught me how to do the simplest spread—past, present, future—and led me to Michelle Tea’s book on tarot, life, and writing, Modern Tarot: Connecting With Your Higher Self Through the Wisdom of the Cards. Past, present, future; beginning, middle, and end. My friend and I began to draw a single card to set the mood for our writing sessions together, held at a ramshackle coworking space in the neighborhood where we lived.

What I like about drawing a single card before writing is that it allows me a single place to put my feelings about that day’s words—all my fear that the words won’t come and all my fear that they will. Drawing a single card, the mother of pentacles, for instance, which offers an image of a deer and her fawn, gives me a door at which to knock when I can’t see any of that paragraph’s architecture. She excels in the home, the card says: Perhaps I’ll turn my scent diffuser on, or I’ll have a character bake a scone, or I’ll think about why some person in my book moved around so much from place to place. It’s not so much a place to start writing but rather a way to give the day’s writing a particular mood or scent or inflection. Draw the death card, which in The Wild Unknown simply means that “something in your life needs to end…something is trying to find closure,” and the idea of ending and closure will start bonking around in my brain until it hits something in my writing that needed either to finish or to begin. Each card is like a prompt I suppose, except instead of being wacky and contrived, it feels like a prompt I gave myself from the darkest recesses of my unconscious, a shortcut to the place I was trying to go. 

I drew a card every day while writing The Third Rainbow Girl, which explores a mysterious act of violence in Pocahontas County, West Virginia in 1980, the Appalachian community where it transpired, and my own time in the place as a national service worker. For nearly the entirety of the fifteen months when I was most actively engaged, sentence by sentence, in writing the book, I dreamed about murder—either murdering or being murdered—every night. Then every morning I went to the deck and chose a card. I am not exaggerating when I say that I chose the moon card almost every time, no matter how well I shuffled. The card’s overall theme: vivid dreams and fears. I read the card’s description so many times I can recite it by heart:

[The moon] is the shadow realm, the place where dreams, fears, and mysteries are born. Much darkness can linger here, and if you aren’t careful, this can lead to periods of anxiety and self-doubt almost as if you’ve lost your way in a house of mirrors. Many great artists have roamed this inner landscape. It’s where imagination and creativity drift freely upon the midnight air.

That about summed it up. Fuck the fucking moon, I began to say aloud each time I drew it. Fuck this fucking book.

But the moon would not be fucked and neither would the book I was writing; they would not go away until they went away and maybe not even then. Eventually, I finished the book and I lost the friend. I’m drawing new cards these days—a lot of pentacles, the suit of home and hearth. I hope I drift less and dig more in the next book, but of course, it’s not up to me. 

 

Emma Copley Eisenberg is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette Books, 2020). Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Granta, the Los Angeles Review of Books, American Short Fiction, the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other outlets. She is also the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Tin House Summer Workshop, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Lambda Literary. She lives in Philadelphia, where she directs Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts. 

Thumbnail: Altınay Dinç

Craft Capsule: Start, Stop, Change

by

Mimi Lok

1.12.20

This is no. 46 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

For many writers with long-brewing projects, starting a new year can stir up dread, excitement, grim resolve, or all of the above. Mid-January becomes a time of early reckoning: Have I stuck to my guns? Backslid already? Realized, aghast, that my goals were far too lofty? Resolutions are often focused on starting new things, but not enough is said about the value of simply carrying on, taking a moment to reflect on existing projects, and adjusting or even stopping the approaches that are no longer working. 

Whenever I feel stuck or overwhelmed with a writing project, I try to take a step back and ask myself three questions: What needs to start? What needs to stop? What needs to change? And then I make lists or action items in response to those questions. It might look something like this:

What needs to start? 

  • Write the scene or chapter you’ve been avoiding. Drink a shot of tequila and write the bloody thing. In one sitting. Tape over the delete button if necessary.
  • Admit that the work has reached the point where it needs to leave the house. Share it with the person who will tell you things you don’t want to hear but who will ultimately help you make it stronger.
  • Look farther afield for things that feed your creative brain and soul. Get your nose out of a book and get thee to an art museum, concert, or stand-up comedy show. It doesn’t have to be tangibly connected to your project, but it will wake up different parts of you and might even spark ideas.

What needs to stop?

  • Control. Release your characters from their toddler harnesses and let them do what they want to do instead of what you want them to do.
  • Narrator as bodycam. Stop treating your first-person narrator as a passive, disembodied set of eyes and ears, and turn them into an actual human being the reader can see, hear, and feel.
  • Procrastination. Specifically, the kind that’s rooted in a lack of interest and motivation rather than a lack of confidence. If some high power decreed you could only tell one last story before you died, would this be it? If the answer is “umm…,” then put this project aside and find the story that feels compelling and urgent to you, and that only you can tell.

What needs to change?

  • Point of view. Does it have to be the POV you’ve chosen? Why? What would happen if you changed it?
  • Scope. Recognize how you’ve been limiting the story and expand or shrink the world of your story accordingly. This could be related to the number of characters you want to focus on, or settings, or time periods. Or it could be about redistributing the amount of time spent with various characters and their world(s). See how it affects the intensity and focus.
  • Setting. How important is your chosen time and place to the story you want to tell? Would the story change if it were relocated, set in another time period?

The stop/start/change tool is something I’ve borrowed from my other life in the nonprofit sector (mostly in terms of assessing projects and organizational priorities), but which can be handily applied to other areas of life too: friendships, marriages, exercise routines, to name a few.

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Craft Capsule: The End

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.30.19

This is no. 45 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When do you stop revising? How do you know when a poem is done? The short answer is that I consider a poem done once I have committed it to memory. I learned this from a revision exercise I borrowed from Danez Smith who, in turn, borrowed it from Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. The exercise begins: Open to a blank notebook page or Word document and rewrite the poem you are working on from memory. Following this initial rewrite, Van Clief-Stefanon’s exercise contains a series of prompts intended to clarify what is important to the poem, what it needs more of, and what is extraneous. Even without the prompts, rewriting from memory can, on its own, provide such information; what you remember will usually turn out to be what is essential to the poem, whether that is an image, a narrative, a line-length, a sound. If you remember the whole thing, it stands to reason that the whole thing is essential. 

Poets often analogize the writing of poems to other artistic practices: sculpture, pottery, the making of boats. Embedded in each of these analogies is a different perspective on when to let a poem go. Has a particular affecting figure been etched from the raw material of language? Is the poem both beautiful and functional? Has it carried you—or will it carry your reader—somewhere new? But I tend to think of writing poetry as being less like art making and more like a biological process, like life making. Poetry is a place where I develop, a skin I make in order to make myself. Once I have outgrown it, I can examine the poem from all angles. I can learn new things about it and about who I became inside of it. I can polish its exterior, but there is no way for me to get back inside.

This account of poetry can seem like a rather dismal proposition, especially for those of us who give readings, who return again and again to poems that have already taken shape. It sounds like I am saying that the poem and I were briefly alive together and then, once it has been put down, the poem is no longer living. A reading, in this account, is nothing more than a display of dead language. But here is how I think about it: In the third episode of BBC’s Life Story, there is a vignette about hermit crabs’ elaborate, communal ritual of changing shells. Once a hermit crab has outgrown its shell, it does not simply discard it and move on to the next. Rather, it waits for a critical mass of its fellow travelers to gather and arrange themselves into a line by size order, so that they can transfer shells, one to another. The biggest crab moves into an empty shell on the beach, the next in line takes the big crab’s newly abandoned shell, and on and on down the line until everyone’s soft interior, hopefully, has new room in which to grow. 

What I like about using memorization as a diagnostic is that it says nothing about the “quality” of a poem, so it discourages thinking about revision as “fixing.” Instead, what determines whether a poem is finished is the relationship between us, the poem and I. This perspective on poetry helps me to grow, helps me remember that I can be done with something and that it can be imperfect—it can be a shell with a hole in it—but that it might be precisely what someone else is looking for. 

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Thumbnail: Maximilian Paradiz 

Craft Capsule: Revising the Archive

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.9.19

This is no. 42 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Several of the poems in my second collection, Dispatch, which comes out this week from Persea Books, are what I think of as the detritus of my academic book-in-progress about maladjustment in transmasculine literature and theory. In conducting research for this project, I have spent countless hours digging around in digitized newspaper archives, trying to get a feel for what it was like to live a gender-nonconforming life at other times in U.S. history. During the course of this work, I have repeatedly encountered traces of Black/gender-nonconforming lives that flicker in and out of the official record. Every so often I become obsessed with these traces. Mostly what surfaces is news of arrests—arrests for “cross-dressing,” discoveries of “cross-dressing” after arrest. Mostly what surfaces are dead-ends. 

One of the traces I came across: Lawrence Jackson, a Black person who was arrested in 1881 in Chicago wearing a dress and then fined $100. According to the newspapers, Jackson could not pay the fine, but tried to plead for alternate terms of punishment, suggesting that if the judge would accept a smaller fine—all the money they reportedly had, $25—they would self-exile by leaving Chicago forever. But the judge insisted on sending Jackson to jail because “a little punishment would be beneficial.” After this episode, Jackson seems to vanish from the official record, though months later this story, along with an image of Jackson, was reprinted in the popular, tabloid-like National Police Gazette. 

When I first encountered Jackson, I was a PhD student trying to write a dissertation. My first impulse was to put these traces of Jackson’s encounter with power to work in my academic writing—to use their appearance in the archive as evidence for an argument about the regulation of race/sex/gender at the turn of the twentieth century. But it turned out that I couldn’t do it—I lacked both adequate information and the desire to put it, put Jackson, to use. I wanted something from Jackson certainly—they would not leave me alone—but each time I tried to write about them, I was unsettled by the result. It was, in Foucault’s words, “impossible to…grasp them again in themselves, as they might have been ‘in a free state.’” All I could know of Jackson, really, was that they had once or twice been caught—arrested, documented on someone else’s terms. 

Eventually I gave up making an argument altogether and, instead, wrote a poem. It’s no surprise that poetry can be a place to work out our felt relations to traces of the past; the poem has always been where I go to develop a private language, to extend intimately beyond myself, and to stage an impossible, interior conversation. But I was surprised to find that poetry also allowed me to work through some ethical questions that had stalled my academic writing, questions like: What do I do with an archival record that exists only because a violence has occurred? What do I do with lives that, to cite Foucault again, “no longer exist except through the terrible words that were destined to render them forever unworthy of the memory of men”? What I wanted—what it was impossible not to want—from this encounter with someone like me in the past was a sense of historical continuity, a “we” across time. But what kind of “we” can I fashion if all I have are these “terrible words”? 

In writing the poem “Still Life,” I of course could not resolve these questions. But I could attempt writerly experiments that academic prose does not exactly allow. In particular, rather than attending to what happened—rather than being beholden to thinking of Jackson as evidence—I was free to roam inside my lyric room, to conduct a conversation, to put my life and Jackson’s life alongside each other, to imagine them free. 

In your own work, consider asking yourself: What are the traces of the past that will not leave you alone? Can you use those traces in order to imagine the ending to an endless story? Perhaps an ending other than the dismal one hinted at in the official record? What language in the archive is suggestive of these possibilities? What language in the archive is only used for the purpose of capture? Can you make even that language do something else?

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Craft Capsule: Oblique Strategies

by

Kimberly King Parsons

7.15.19

This is no. 37 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was getting my MFA in fiction, one of my favorite professors asked us to write a story using only single syllable words. At first this sounded awful—how could we possibly pull this off? It wasn’t easy, but very quickly it became a kind of game to me, an obstruction that brought out odd new rhythms. When we came back to class and read our stories aloud, it was a revelation. Every single student had done something striking and compelling. The sentences were strange and clipped, everyday phrases made fascinating. One student had something like “he who taught us of the past” to stand in for history professor. In my story, instead of an electrician playing checkers, “the lights guy played reds and blacks.” The formal constraint forced us to go beyond the easy, obvious choices. My professor stressed that this was a starting point, something to unlock us; there was no need to stick to these rules in subsequent drafts. Later, when I was revising, I found that because the work didn’t sound like me, I could brutally edit it. Now, more than ten years later, if something isn’t working in a story or chapter, I sometimes fall back on the one-syllable trick.

The weirdest approaches to process are the ones I find most helpful—the ones that have stayed with me the longest. There was the professor who encouraged his classes to narrate problematic scenes from the perspective of inanimate objects, animals, or the dead. A friend of mine takes the articles out of any story or chapter that’s giving him problems. He usually puts most of them back, but something about the extraction lets him see the work differently. There was another professor who forbade us from using adverbs, or giving characters first names, or starting any sentence with a pronoun—I loved his bizarre rules, even when I decided to break them.

When I’m writing I sometimes consult this strange little deck of cards called Oblique Strategies. Originally created in 1975 by painter Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno—yes, that Brian Eno, immensely talented musician, producer, and co-conspirator of the late David Bowie—each card has a single directive printed on it, a “strategy” for your creative process. These prompts are meant to assist with removing blocks, but the Zen-like aphorisms are more abstract than prescriptive (i.e., “Start at the end,” or “Emphasize the flaws,” or really strange ones like “Remember a time when you hid from something as a child.”) 

The deck my partner and I have at home is the updated 2001 edition, with a bizarre product description: “These cards evolved from separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognized in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, and sometimes they were formulated. They can be used when dilemma occurs in a working situation…The card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear.” These mysterious abstractions are part of the charm. There’s now a version of the strategies available for free online, although I still prefer the physicality of shuffling through a deck. Two cards I selected at random just now read: “Disconnect from desire,” and “Go slowly all the way round the outside.” It all sounds a bit wacky, and that’s exactly the point. I find the further I lean into the weird, the easier is it for me to get back to work.

 

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.

Craft Capsule: “Unlikable” Characters

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.25.18

This is no. 36 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

As writers we all have specific goals when creating our fictional worlds. Some writers value plot, others value humor. Some prioritize beautiful sentences or abstract ruminations about the state of society. When I write, my goal is to construct characters full of depth and complexity. I don’t need readers to agree with my characters, but to understand the why behind their actions. 

When I created Haemi Lee, the female protagonist of my novel, If You Leave Me, I focused on developing this complexity so that my readers would know her intimately. At the beginning of the novel, Haemi is a sixteen-year-old refugee during the Korean War, and by the last pages she is a thirty-two-year-old mother in 1967. By covering a wide swath of time, I want readers to watch Haemi survive, mature, fall in love, make mistakes, become a mother, and grapple with the difficulties of life in post-war South Korea. I want Haemi to feel as real as possible, which meant that she would have to be imperfect, flawed. As I wrote, I considered how she would behave as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and lover. I considered her temperament. Growing up without means in a conservative time, there would be strict social and gendered guidelines placed on Haemi. I wanted her to bristle against those rules. The problem, I discovered, was that an imperfect female protagonist is often labeled unlikable. 

The first time I heard Haemi described this way was in workshop. I was surprised. It was a gendered remark, and I hadn’t been expecting it at the graduate school level. When did we ever question the likability of male characters? Complicating matters further, when did we question the likability of female characters when they were written by male writers? I simmered in silence as my classmates discussed Haemi Lee. (As the student being workshopped, I wasn’t allowed to speak.) Jisoo and Kyunghwan, my two male protagonists, were not always likable and yet the focus remained on Haemi. Why did she need to be likable when her male counterparts were not? Why were we concerned with the likability of women anyway? Who among us are always likable?

This conversation led me to consider the trope of the “unlikable female character.” I prickled at the phrase, the silly term that asserts female characters are valued for their docility and amiability. I decided that I couldn’t let other readers’ apprehensions about Haemi’s likability soften her. Haemi pushes against the social expectations of her time by not hiding her feelings, by wanting an education, and by speaking freely of the difficulties of motherhood. Haemi is giving and selfish, kind and callous. She is concerned with the welfare of everyone around her while also deeply concerned with her own happiness. If I succeeded in my writing goals, my readers will not always like Haemi, but they will feel deeply for her. They will want to guide her, argue with her, and root for her. 

When writing, our concern should not be a character’s likability, regardless of gender. As the writer, our focus should be on making the character feel true. When my students hesitate at revealing their character’s flaws, I encourage them to dig into the messy, ugly parts. Flaws are what make fiction interesting and realistic. Though we may not love our flaws, they are crucial for characters. When a student worries about the likability of their female characters in particular, this is what I tell them: We need more unlikable female protagonists to deepen the way we consider women in our society. Literature teaches us. Literature makes us question and broaden our understanding of the world. If “unlikable female” means a realistic, imperfect, complex woman, then we need to write as many of these characters as we can.

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, and Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from the Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Multiple Narrators

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.18.18

This is no. 35 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Before I became a writer, I was first an insatiable reader. From Curious George to Little Women to The Lover, I can mark the trajectory of my development as a writer against my reading choices. A particularly memorable turning point happened when I was eight years old. While at the library, I came across a chapter book called Morning Girl. The cover showed a young girl with dark brown hair and bare shoulders swimming in the open sea, and I picked it up because of the striking image. As I began reading, I fell for Morning Girl’s lush, bright voice as she described her fondness for waking early and searching the beach for seashells. I felt keenly for Morning Girl when her parents favored her younger brother. I had a younger sister, and I understood the mean yellow streaks of jealousy. 

The shock came when I turned to the next chapter. At the top of the page was the name Star Boy. This chapter, I realized as I read, was narrated not by the titular girl, but her younger brother. I remember the confusion I felt and how quickly it was replaced with giddy wonder. Up until that moment, I hadn’t known that a book could have multiple narrators. Morning Girl tore writing open for me: For the first time I recognized that writers were in control of how the story was told and that the possibilities were endless.

I’ve gravitated toward novels with multiple narrators ever since, so when I started writing If You Leave Me, I knew I wanted to try this format. However, I needed to make sure having multiple perspectives would serve my goals. My central character was Haemi Lee, a sixteen-year-old refugee in Busan at the start of my novel. Did I really need the voices of her best friend Kyunghwan, her suitor Jisoo, her younger brother Hyunki, and eventually, her eldest daughter Solee? Thankfully, yes. After some examination, I realized that having multiple narrators allowed me to show the secrets characters were hiding not only from each other, but also from themselves. By alternating these voices, I was able to investigate how one event could be interpreted in various ways, depending on the character’s temperament and circumstance. For example, Haemi, Kyunghwan, and Jisoo all hungered in Busan during the Korean War, and yet their resulting traumas are each unique due to differences in class, gender, and family expectations. 

If You Leave Me spans sixteen years, from 1951 to 1967. Multiple perspectives also gave me the best means of capturing the landscape of Korea during this tumultuous time. Through my five alternating narrators, I was able to write about an ROK soldier in the Korean War; a college student in Seoul in the years afterward, when dictators ruled the nation; a factory worker forced to meet with a matchmaker; a mother yearning to escape her rural community; and a young daughter growing up in post-war Korea, when the vestiges of violence took on new forms.   

When my students say they want to write a novel with multiple perspectives, I’m secretly elated. However, I always remind them of the potential pitfalls. More voices may make your story feel fragmented, which can lead to readers preferring one character over another. In order to avoid this, it’s important to value each perspective equally. If you as the writer dislike one of your characters, the reader will feel that animosity in your words. The solution? Know your characters deeply on and off the page—know their desires, tics, fears, sexual preferences, favorite foods, secret dreams, worst habits. Develop them until you know them as intimately as a friend, in all of their complexities. In the end, I hope having multiple narrators in If You Leave Me enriches the reading experience. Haemi Lee’s voice is the center, but the four characters around her provide a lens not only into the larger history of Korea, but into Haemi’s complex, difficult temperament.

In my final Craft Capsule next week, I will talk more about Haemi and the necessity of “unlikable” female protagonists. 

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from the Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Who Are You?

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.4.18

This is no. 33 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

“When did you start writing?” Writers are often asked this question, and I’m always curious about the story behind the answers, the paths we take to find our vocations. As a child of immigrants, Korean was my first language. When I began elementary school, I found myself mentally switching between my mother tongue and English, trying to match vocabulary words across language lines. I soon found myself gravitating toward writing; with a pencil in my hand, I could take my time and express myself more clearly. In the first grade, I wrote about butterflies hatching for my beloved teacher, Ms. Benz. The next year, I wrote about a girl with short black hair who wanted to get her ears pierced, but whose Korean parents refused. I presented the story to my mother and father, hopeful and full of glee at my cunning. (Reader, they fell for it and let me pierce my ears.) “I’ve written ever since I was a child,” I say in answer to that question. But when did I find the stories I wanted to tell? That was a more recent discovery.  

As a sophomore in college, I took my first formal writing workshop. Somehow, over the course of my teenage years, my writing had changed. I no longer wrote stories that were rooted in my desires and questions about the world. Instead, I created characters without clear identities—their race, appearance, and backgrounds were murky, undefined. These young adults frolicked and fought on misty hills, drunk with mulberry-stained lips. I was trying to shy away from what I thought was expected of me. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as the Korean American workshopper who could only write about “Asian” issues. But I sensed that something was wrong with my characters: They were vague, flat, lifeless.Who is this girl?” a classmate asked. “Don’t be afraid to write about what you know,” my teacher said. 

At first I resisted these suggestions, digging deeper into my no-name characters without a clear sense of home. That is, until the summer break between my sophomore and junior year. One June evening I had dinner with my parents. Over a meal of galbi-tang, rice, wine, and ice cream, my parents recounted their childhoods. My father described catching grasshoppers from his neighbors’ field, of cooking them on a skillet over an open flame. My mother told me of staining her fingers orange with bong seon hwa flowers, which I loved to do during my summer visits to Korea as well.  

The next morning, I found myself still mulling over my parents’ stories. I imagined my father as a child, his lithe body running through high grass in search of those plump green insects. I loved that the act of staining fingers with flower petals, which my sister and I did every summer in Korea, was not only a family tradition, but a Korean one. These stories stayed with me all summer and through the fall, when my undergraduate classes resumed. This time in my fiction workshop, I wrote with greater purpose and clarity. I developed characters with a culture and history behind them. Better, I thought.

The more I wrote, the more I sought my family. When I began my graduate studies, I turned to my maternal grandmother. A fierce matriarch and gifted storyteller, my grandmother shared her life with me—she lived under Japanese occupation, survived the Korean War, and forged a life for her daughters in the years afterward. I absorbed these anecdotes, sometimes taking notes and sometimes just listening. 

When I began If You Leave Me, my debut novel, I knew I wanted to write about the Korean War. More important, I knew I wanted the main character to be a Korean woman who was strong, willful, intelligent, stubborn, and full of contradictions. I wanted a female protagonist that readers would love one moment and argue with the next, someone who felt as complex as our best friends and lovers do. I created Haemi Lee, a teenaged refugee living in Busan during the war. I rooted her story in my grandmother’s experiences, but I added my own desires and questions and fears until Haemi became a character of her own. 

It took me a few wayward years, but I eventually realized that writing about my culture does not confine me as a writer. Instead, my history provides a pool of memory for me to draw inspiration from. Now, when I teach creative writing, I emphasize this process for my students. I encourage them to value every part of their identities.

“Who are you?” I ask. “Tell me what you know.”

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Tao Te Ching

by

Simon Van Booy

6.13.18

This is no. 30 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

The biggest little book in China is called the Tao Te Ching. One of its most famous sayings is Wu Wei, 無爲, literally, doing nothing or non-doing.

Whereas some people have used this to imbue passivity or laziness with spiritual significance, I think it has something to do with wholeheartedness.

The child at play does not stop to ask herself, “Am I playing?” She is not aware of time, nor constrained by it. Imagine you get so deep into writing, that you forget you are writing. The story just flows from you, through you, and out into the world.

How can you get to that place? Where the act of writing is so much of part of you, it’s effortless. A process of instinct rather than thought—

The first step is to give up the idea you will ever fail, or ever succeed. Prepare to serve only the needs of the story. Then move your hands, breathe.  

Have faith.  

Laugh.  

Cry.

Sleep.

Dream.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: A Bird in the Sky

by

Simon Van Booy

6.6.18

This is no. 29 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Having a writing practice is like rowing out to sea in a small boat with a typewriter and sandwiches, hoping for the arrival of some strange bird in the sky. 

After a few hours you tell yourself, “It’s only been a few hours.”  

But when days pass with not even a feather, you wonder, “Am I in the right place? I should have brought binoculars.” You keep looking though—searching the empty sky for some sign, some intervention, a tangible indication that you’re good enough to write, educated enough, wild enough, rich enough, poor enough, sober enough, drunk enough, mystical enough, existential enough.  

Months pass. You’ve been rowing out to the same deep water for weeks and weeks. You’ve lost track of days. Seasons have changed. Where your hands once bled on the oars, there are calluses. You’ve survived heaving seas, blistering heat, and torrential downpours. 

At this point most people toss their typewriters over the side of the boat, and row for the safety of land. Without the bird, they say, nothing is possible.

But you remain in the boat, listening to yourself breathe, a film of salt on your skin. You sit down and pick up the typewriter, rest it on your sore legs, and start to imagine the story you once dreamed of writing. You don’t care about the bird anymore, the words are enough, the sentences are ropes you can use to pull yourself through the narrative.

Then suddenly you look up, there’s a dazzling light, like some mystical, winged creature with blazing eyes.  

As writers, we don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration waits for us.

Don’t ever forget that.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: Find Your Metaphor

by

Sandra Beasley

4.4.17

This is the seventh in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

A friend of mine, a poet, was trying to figure out what bothered him about a draft of my poem. “A poem should be like a wall,” he told me. “You build it brick by brick.” He pointed out that, in his opinion, key bricks were missing.

I didn’t share his vision, but I admired that he had one. I’ve come to value developing a metaphorical model for your genre. A model can help you identify your goals, name your struggles, and proceed toward success.

Perhaps you follow the lead of “stanza,” the Italian word for “room.” You come to think of each poem as a house. How do the rooms differ in function, size, and occupancy? Where does your central drama take place? What comprises your roof?

Perhaps you come to think of your essay as a harp. Each researched fact glimmers, an available string in a golden frame. But you can’t play them all at once. Only in choosing which notes to highlight, and how to sequence them, can you create music.

Personally, I always think of memoir as an egg. I’m protective of the inspiring memory, smooth and undisturbed in its surface. But I have to be prepared to break the egg. I have to make the idea messy before I can make a satisfying meal.

Perhaps your novel is a shark. Perhaps your villanelle is a waltz. Perhaps your short story is a baseball game. Don’t adopt my metaphors. Find one of your own.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: The Egg in My Pocket

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.21.17

This is the first in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

As a project for school, my thirteen-year-old son, Will, spent several days carrying an egg around. His task was simple: Keep the egg from breaking.

The experiment was intended to show what it’s like to have a baby, to approximate the feeling of constant vigilance that never leaves you once you have a child. Ultimately, of course, it was supposed to make hormone-addled adolescents think twice before doing something stupid.

As a mother of three, though, I wasn’t convinced. A baby is nothing like an egg, unless it’s an egg that cries, wets itself, sucks on you constantly, and wakes you up four times a night. But as my son described the feeling of carrying his egg—he named it “Pablito”—I realized that it did remind me of something. “It’s always there,” Will said. “You can’t forget it or take it for granted. You feel protective and anxious all the time.”

Carrying an egg around is like writing a novel. No matter what else you’re doing, the fact of the novel is in the back of your mind. If you go too long without attending to it, you get nervous. It is always with you, a weight solid and yet fragile, in constant danger of being crushed. Like the egg, the weight of a book-in-progress is both literal and metaphorical. Within the accumulating pages, as inside the delicate eggshell, are the raw ingredients for something greater. Keeping it intact requires patience, time, attention—and, most of all, commitment. This concept applies to any stage of the process: The egg is both the idea that you nurture long before you begin to write, and the writing itself, which must be fostered and sustained.

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Deny the Accident

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.7.17

This is the third in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Jackson Pollock’s reply to an interviewer’s question about how he composed his paintings of “accidental” splatterings has stuck with me. “I don’t use the accident,” he said. “I deny the accident.”

The sheer bravado of this is thrilling, and as a writer I find it to be a useful way to think about my work-in-progress. When I’m putting words on the page it’s easy to second guess, to question the often-unconscious choices I make as I go: the trajectories of characters’ lives, shifts in direction and focus, minor characters who gain traction as the story moves forward. The editor in my head starts whispering: You’re going in the wrong direction. Why are you spending so much time on that character? You need to focus, get back to the story you originally envisioned, stick to the plan.

Over time I’ve learned to trust my impulses. Whatever else they may be, these unanticipated detours are fresh and surprising; they keep me interested, and often end up adding depth to the work. Not always, of course—sometimes an accident is just an accident. But believing that these splatterings on my own canvas are there for a reason, as part of a larger process of conception, gives me the audacity to experiment.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Good Sense

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.28.17

This is the second in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

The problem of beginning…

The Southern novelist and poet George Garrett, who was director of creative writing at the University of Virginia when I was a graduate student there, always said that if you’re having trouble getting into a chapter or a scene you should use all five senses right at the start, preferably in the first paragraph. Touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight. Your scene will jump to life, and you’ll have an easier time falling into the dream world of the story.

On a related note, Gustave Flaubert kept rotten apples in his desk drawer to evoke autumn when writing scenes that took place in that season….

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Good Sense

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.28.17

This is the second in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

The problem of beginning…

The Southern novelist and poet George Garrett, who was director of creative writing at the University of Virginia when I was a graduate student there, always said that if you’re having trouble getting into a chapter or a scene you should use all five senses right at the start, preferably in the first paragraph. Touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight. Your scene will jump to life, and you’ll have an easier time falling into the dream world of the story.

On a related note, Gustave Flaubert kept rotten apples in his desk drawer to evoke autumn when writing scenes that took place in that season….

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Good Sense

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.28.17

This is the second in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

The problem of beginning…

The Southern novelist and poet George Garrett, who was director of creative writing at the University of Virginia when I was a graduate student there, always said that if you’re having trouble getting into a chapter or a scene you should use all five senses right at the start, preferably in the first paragraph. Touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight. Your scene will jump to life, and you’ll have an easier time falling into the dream world of the story.

On a related note, Gustave Flaubert kept rotten apples in his desk drawer to evoke autumn when writing scenes that took place in that season….

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Tolstoy’s Short Chapters

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.28.17

This is the sixth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Anna Karenina is more than eight hundred pages long. So why does it feel shorter than many three-hundred-page books?

As I read this novel recently I noticed that Tolstoy cuts his long scenes into short chapters, usually no more than two or three pages. This makes sense, considering it was published in serial installments, from 1873 to 1877, in the Russian Messenger. Tolstoy often ends a chapter in a moment of suspense—a door opens, a provocative question is asked, a contentious group sits down to dinner, characters who’ve been circling each other finally begin to talk—which propels the reader forward into the next chapter.

The psychological effect of these short chapters is that this huge book is easy to get through. Reading in bed late at night (as I tend to do), I’m tempted to put it down, but then I riffle ahead to find that the next chapter is only three pages long. And I really want to find out who’s behind that door.

Three pages. I can do that—as a reader and as a writer. 

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Visual Prompts

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.21.17

This is the fifth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

For many writers, visual and tactile stimulation is an important component of the creative process. William Faulkner used to map his stories on the wall in his study. If you visit Rowan Oak, his home in Oxford, Mississippi, you can still see the notes for his 1954 novel, A Fable, in his precise, small handwriting. Edwidge Danticat has said that she has an evolving bulletin board in her workspace where she tacks up collages of photos of Haiti and images from magazines.

I, too, have a new board for each book I write. When I’m starting work on a novel I gather scraps like a magpie. My Orphan Train board was covered with postcards from the New York Tenement Museum depicting the interior of an immigrant Irish family’s cramped apartment, a black and white photograph of a young couple at Coney Island in the 1920s, a map of the village of Kinvara in Ireland. I hung a hand-carved Celtic cross on a green ribbon and a stone shamrock on a red ribbon from Galway; a Native American dreamcatcher from Maine; a silver train pin from a New York Train Riders’ reunion in Little Falls, Minnesota. I tacked up note cards: “Food in Ireland 1900s” was one (“wheatmeal, hung beef, tongue, barley”). Another listed ideas I wanted to explore (“links between misplaced and abandoned people with little in common”).

For A Piece of the World, I included a print of Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World; photos I took, inside and out, of Christina’s home in Cushing, Maine; some Emily Dickinson poems (“This is my letter to the world / That never wrote to me”); and postcards of other paintings Wyeth did at the Olson house, including Wind From the Sea and Christina Olson (both of which make appearances in my novel). I photocopied sketches Wyeth made for his portrait of Christina. I even included a small handful of grasses I’d plucked from the field Christina sat in.

I find these idea boards fun to assemble and inspiring as I work. My mantra, always: Find inspiration where you can.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

An outline of A Fable on the wall of William Faulkner’s study at Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi.

(Credit: Joe Bonomo)

Craft Capsule: Making Conversation

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.14.17

This is the fourth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Dialogue is hard to get right. It should sound like natural speech, but in fact it’s nothing like it. I like to send my creative writing students out to cafés and parks with notebooks to transcribe bits of overheard conversations. Then I ask them to type up these transcripts and turn them into dialogue between characters. Inevitably their written dialogue bears little resemblance to the overheard conversations. When you write dialogue you must eliminate niceties and unnecessary patter, and cut to the core of the exchange—unless the patter is crucial to the story, conveying a dissembling, depressed, incoherent, or boring personality. At the same time, it should sound natural, like something someone would actually say. The writer George Garrett called this dovetailing—trimming for verisimilitude and impact.

In direct and indirect speech, your characters should constantly be saying “no” to each other. Most of us (myself included) tend to avoid conflict in our real lives, but conflict is crucial in fiction. It keeps the story interesting.

Richard Price, in his novel Lush Life, allows his characters to talk and talk and talk. Price maintains a delicate balancing act; his characters’ words matter. What they say changes the direction of the story. But he never burdens his dialogue with exposition or forces it to convey plot points that don’t come up naturally. In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway writes, “In order to engage us emotionally in a disagreement, the characters must have an emotional stake in the outcome.” Price’s characters are nothing if not emotionally invested.

Price’s dialogue is vital to the story because it moves the action forward. He constantly puts his characters in conflict with one another. Their conversations are full of surprises—self-revelation, inadvertent admissions, hearsay, evidence—and kinetic energy; they crackle with life. Real life.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Making Conversation

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.14.17

This is the fourth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Dialogue is hard to get right. It should sound like natural speech, but in fact it’s nothing like it. I like to send my creative writing students out to cafés and parks with notebooks to transcribe bits of overheard conversations. Then I ask them to type up these transcripts and turn them into dialogue between characters. Inevitably their written dialogue bears little resemblance to the overheard conversations. When you write dialogue you must eliminate niceties and unnecessary patter, and cut to the core of the exchange—unless the patter is crucial to the story, conveying a dissembling, depressed, incoherent, or boring personality. At the same time, it should sound natural, like something someone would actually say. The writer George Garrett called this dovetailing—trimming for verisimilitude and impact.

In direct and indirect speech, your characters should constantly be saying “no” to each other. Most of us (myself included) tend to avoid conflict in our real lives, but conflict is crucial in fiction. It keeps the story interesting.

Richard Price, in his novel Lush Life, allows his characters to talk and talk and talk. Price maintains a delicate balancing act; his characters’ words matter. What they say changes the direction of the story. But he never burdens his dialogue with exposition or forces it to convey plot points that don’t come up naturally. In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway writes, “In order to engage us emotionally in a disagreement, the characters must have an emotional stake in the outcome.” Price’s characters are nothing if not emotionally invested.

Price’s dialogue is vital to the story because it moves the action forward. He constantly puts his characters in conflict with one another. Their conversations are full of surprises—self-revelation, inadvertent admissions, hearsay, evidence—and kinetic energy; they crackle with life. Real life.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Beware the Indeterminate “It”

by

Sandra Beasley

4.11.17

This is the eighth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Beware the indeterminate “it,” I often say, when fine-tuning a draft.

But that word is so convenient. “It” carries the football from the previous sentence. Whatever “it” you just defined, you’re sticking with it for another ten yards, right?

Except that you’re fumbling the play. Too often, relying on “it” dissipates your language’s energy. Circle every “it” that leads off a sentence. Revising to avoid these instances will force your verbs into action, and clarify your intent.

This is not a hard-and-fast rule. Sometimes an indeterminate “it” will remain, one that has earned its place on the field. The pronoun can be strategic—signifying not just gender neutrality but an absence of comprehension or known name, a fumbling toward meaning, the building of suspense.

In the right hands, “It” can be a potent force. Just ask Stephen King.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: Deny the Accident

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.7.17

This is the third in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Jackson Pollock’s reply to an interviewer’s question about how he composed his paintings of “accidental” splatterings has stuck with me. “I don’t use the accident,” he said. “I deny the accident.”

The sheer bravado of this is thrilling, and as a writer I find it to be a useful way to think about my work-in-progress. When I’m putting words on the page it’s easy to second guess, to question the often-unconscious choices I make as I go: the trajectories of characters’ lives, shifts in direction and focus, minor characters who gain traction as the story moves forward. The editor in my head starts whispering: You’re going in the wrong direction. Why are you spending so much time on that character? You need to focus, get back to the story you originally envisioned, stick to the plan.

Over time I’ve learned to trust my impulses. Whatever else they may be, these unanticipated detours are fresh and surprising; they keep me interested, and often end up adding depth to the work. Not always, of course—sometimes an accident is just an accident. But believing that these splatterings on my own canvas are there for a reason, as part of a larger process of conception, gives me the audacity to experiment.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: A Bird in the Sky

by

Simon Van Booy

6.6.18

This is no. 29 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Having a writing practice is like rowing out to sea in a small boat with a typewriter and sandwiches, hoping for the arrival of some strange bird in the sky. 

After a few hours you tell yourself, “It’s only been a few hours.”  

But when days pass with not even a feather, you wonder, “Am I in the right place? I should have brought binoculars.” You keep looking though—searching the empty sky for some sign, some intervention, a tangible indication that you’re good enough to write, educated enough, wild enough, rich enough, poor enough, sober enough, drunk enough, mystical enough, existential enough.  

Months pass. You’ve been rowing out to the same deep water for weeks and weeks. You’ve lost track of days. Seasons have changed. Where your hands once bled on the oars, there are calluses. You’ve survived heaving seas, blistering heat, and torrential downpours. 

At this point most people toss their typewriters over the side of the boat, and row for the safety of land. Without the bird, they say, nothing is possible.

But you remain in the boat, listening to yourself breathe, a film of salt on your skin. You sit down and pick up the typewriter, rest it on your sore legs, and start to imagine the story you once dreamed of writing. You don’t care about the bird anymore, the words are enough, the sentences are ropes you can use to pull yourself through the narrative.

Then suddenly you look up, there’s a dazzling light, like some mystical, winged creature with blazing eyes.  

As writers, we don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration waits for us.

Don’t ever forget that.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: A Form of Salvation

by

Simon Van Booy

6.20.18

This is no. 31 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When you start thinking creatively, it’s like releasing a live animal—a new species of mischief that cannot be contained to just one area of your life. Creativity is not like a machine that can be switched on and off. And therefore it does not end when you stand up from your desk after a few solid hours of work.

Ever wondered why you feel the urge to roller skate through a shopping mall listening to Abba? Leave strange notes on the doorsteps of strangers? Eat apples standing up in the bath, naked, with the window open?

Now you know. Creativity is a form of salvation.  

If we could limit creativity to just one area of our lives—how would we ever manage to convince ourselves to climb back in the rocket, and blast off again and again and again, to those distant galaxies of unwritten narrative? 

And stop worrying about getting published. You write because you’re obsessed with telling a story in a way that no one else can. Focus on that. Only that. Everything else will take care of itself.  And, please, for my sake—don’t ever think buying a plastic skeleton from a medical supply store then holding it up to the window when people walk past is a waste of time.  

Being a writer means opening your whole life to creativity. It is a commitment to overpowering fear with imagination and compassion for yourself, as well as others. As a person who writes you’ll be a better mother, son, best friend, aunt, cousin, coach, or bank teller. Because learning to write is learning to see, and striving to see beyond is perhaps the only hope for our species.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: Find Your Voice

by

Simon Van Booy

6.27.18

This is no. 32 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Would you agree that for the past forty years, automobiles have been evolving in such a way as they now all look alike? As though created from the same, basic mold? One of the most important things you can do for yourself as a writer is to find your voice. I don’t mean tone, which is another way of referring to how writing makes you feel. The tone of this piece for Poets & Writers is very different from the tone of my latest novel, or the tone of the philosophy books I edited several years ago.  

I’m talking about voice. My voice can be squeezed into a 19th century corset for one novel, or spewed from the bowels of a werewolf for another, but it’s essentially the same underneath.  

When I realized after writing a couple of early novels, that I hadn’t found my voice—that there was even something called a voice—I was devastated.  

Had my years of labor all been for nothing? If my goal was to be published then yes. A total waste of time. But if my aim was to grow as an artist and as a person, then I had reason to be proud of myself.  

Anyway, to spare you the same kind of pain, I’ve devised an exercise that will hopefully lead you closer than you’ve ever been to the fiery core of your own, utterly unique, narrative style.  

1. Pick five books (or poems) you love, and five books (or poems) you dislike intensely, for a total of ten works.

2. Read the first page (or poem) several times, then rewrite it in such a way that you think, in your opinion, it’s better. Sometimes this means changing the order of words, or cutting them, or adding to them, or changing the tone completely. Don’t worry about offending anyone, no one knows you’re doing this except me, and I won’t tell.

3. This exercise, if done properly should take a fair amount of time. Once you’ve completed it, you’ll start to get a sense of who you are as a writer, and how your writing voice differs from the voices of others. Rewriting sections from writers you love is perhaps the most fruitful, because instead of emulating—you’re forced to be different. We each love certain writers for our own reasons. Rewriting their work will illuminate the subtle differences between your voice and theirs. 

4. Once you find your voice, it will almost certainly evolve over time, the way we evolve naturally as artists. Look at the early work of Van Gogh, compared to his later work. Dubliners vs. Finnegans Wake.  Early Beethoven sounds a little like Hayden—while late Beethoven is characteristic of the sound we associate with him. The core will always remain. Your voice is a gift to the world, so find it, nurture it, develop it, work it like a machine, give it the freedom of a vine—but above all, share it. 

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: The Art of Research

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.11.18

This is no. 34 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I began writing If You Leave Me, my forthcoming debut novel, I settled upon the premise quickly. Inspired by my family’s history, I knew I would open with Haemi Lee, a sixteen-year-old refugee living in Busan during the Korean War. Though the story was rooted in truth, I was eager to let my imagination take over. Scenes came to me fully formed: Haemi on a hill overlooking the makeshift shacks of her village; Hyunki, her sickly younger brother, walking to the market alone; a network of aunties whispering about the front lines, fear prickling their voices raw. Through Haemi and the characters around her, I wanted to explore how years of devastating loss and violence could warp a person’s psyche, body, and view of the world.

How would I write about 1950s South Korea, when I was born in Queens, New York, in 1987? I wanted to represent this period accurately, so I began intensive research. In the library, I took dutiful notes about that critical day on June 25, 1950, when the North invaded the South. I learned about the political climate that had catalyzed the start of the war. I jotted down the different weapons each army used, the timeline of events. As I gathered these facts, I started to see a change in my writing. I was more specific, surer about the world that Haemi, Hyunki, her best friend Kyunghwan, and her suitor Jisoo were surviving in. 

In my graduate school workshops, I was pleased to find that my research created a strong foundation for my novel. The dates and facts were clear. However, a new problem arose. In my critiques I saw the same question asked in various forms: What does this refugee village look like? What is Haemi wearing? What materials are the makeshift shacks made of? Though my readers were not confused about the circumstances of the war, I wasn’t yet conveying what it felt like to live in this tumultuous time. 

On my next trip to Korea I interviewed my maternal grandmother, who had been a teenage refugee during the Korean War. With a notebook in my lap, I asked her when she fled her home, what she ate on the journey south, what she wore, where she lived, and more. Back in America, I returned to the library. This time, I read ROK soldiers’ memoirs so that I could develop Jisoo’s and Kyunghwan’s experiences. I pored over photographs of civilian refugees, of the markets that formed during the years-long stalemate, and of the shacks constructed from corrugated tin, cardboard, and plywood. My sentences became richer, laden with sensory details. I lingered over descriptions of food, clothing, the buildings in Seoul, the fields in the rural outskirts of South Korea. In workshop I was able to anticipate my classmates’ questions about the physical world. The novel was coming together, I thought. I had finally done enough.  

Or had I? The more I wrote, the more I became curious about Haemi’s psychology. I wanted to explore the way violence, gender expectations, poverty, and family circumstances shaped Haemi’s life in the years after the armistice. In order to do so, I needed to develop her interiority so that readers would empathize with her. I returned to the library, eager to read memoirs written by Korean women who had come of age in the 1950s. However, I found none. Where were all the women? The answer both frustrated and fueled me. They had not been valued during this period of history, and thus, their voices had not been preserved. 

What happens when there is no research to guide your way? Determined to continue, I got creative. I read studies about the history of social and gender hierarchy in South Korea; I watched movies and documentaries; I examined the linguistics of trauma and depression in the Korean language; I returned to my grandmother for her opinions on mental health. I also turned to fiction, reading novels about women living through conflict in other countries. Finally, I considered what would happen to me if I had experienced the trauma of Japanese colonialism, Korean independence, and war before the age of twenty. I imagined how my frustrations would manifest in the domestic sphere. I empathized until I knew Haemi completely.   

Over my journey of writing If You Leave Me, my research took many forms. From reference texts and history books to films and novels to my grandmother’s own experiences, the process was more diverse than I’d expected. My favorite part though, was ending where I began—with my writerly impulse to imagine, to create characters, to tell a story.    

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: The Art of Research

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.11.18

This is no. 34 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I began writing If You Leave Me, my forthcoming debut novel, I settled upon the premise quickly. Inspired by my family’s history, I knew I would open with Haemi Lee, a sixteen-year-old refugee living in Busan during the Korean War. Though the story was rooted in truth, I was eager to let my imagination take over. Scenes came to me fully formed: Haemi on a hill overlooking the makeshift shacks of her village; Hyunki, her sickly younger brother, walking to the market alone; a network of aunties whispering about the front lines, fear prickling their voices raw. Through Haemi and the characters around her, I wanted to explore how years of devastating loss and violence could warp a person’s psyche, body, and view of the world.

How would I write about 1950s South Korea, when I was born in Queens, New York, in 1987? I wanted to represent this period accurately, so I began intensive research. In the library, I took dutiful notes about that critical day on June 25, 1950, when the North invaded the South. I learned about the political climate that had catalyzed the start of the war. I jotted down the different weapons each army used, the timeline of events. As I gathered these facts, I started to see a change in my writing. I was more specific, surer about the world that Haemi, Hyunki, her best friend Kyunghwan, and her suitor Jisoo were surviving in. 

In my graduate school workshops, I was pleased to find that my research created a strong foundation for my novel. The dates and facts were clear. However, a new problem arose. In my critiques I saw the same question asked in various forms: What does this refugee village look like? What is Haemi wearing? What materials are the makeshift shacks made of? Though my readers were not confused about the circumstances of the war, I wasn’t yet conveying what it felt like to live in this tumultuous time. 

On my next trip to Korea I interviewed my maternal grandmother, who had been a teenage refugee during the Korean War. With a notebook in my lap, I asked her when she fled her home, what she ate on the journey south, what she wore, where she lived, and more. Back in America, I returned to the library. This time, I read ROK soldiers’ memoirs so that I could develop Jisoo’s and Kyunghwan’s experiences. I pored over photographs of civilian refugees, of the markets that formed during the years-long stalemate, and of the shacks constructed from corrugated tin, cardboard, and plywood. My sentences became richer, laden with sensory details. I lingered over descriptions of food, clothing, the buildings in Seoul, the fields in the rural outskirts of South Korea. In workshop I was able to anticipate my classmates’ questions about the physical world. The novel was coming together, I thought. I had finally done enough.  

Or had I? The more I wrote, the more I became curious about Haemi’s psychology. I wanted to explore the way violence, gender expectations, poverty, and family circumstances shaped Haemi’s life in the years after the armistice. In order to do so, I needed to develop her interiority so that readers would empathize with her. I returned to the library, eager to read memoirs written by Korean women who had come of age in the 1950s. However, I found none. Where were all the women? The answer both frustrated and fueled me. They had not been valued during this period of history, and thus, their voices had not been preserved. 

What happens when there is no research to guide your way? Determined to continue, I got creative. I read studies about the history of social and gender hierarchy in South Korea; I watched movies and documentaries; I examined the linguistics of trauma and depression in the Korean language; I returned to my grandmother for her opinions on mental health. I also turned to fiction, reading novels about women living through conflict in other countries. Finally, I considered what would happen to me if I had experienced the trauma of Japanese colonialism, Korean independence, and war before the age of twenty. I imagined how my frustrations would manifest in the domestic sphere. I empathized until I knew Haemi completely.   

Over my journey of writing If You Leave Me, my research took many forms. From reference texts and history books to films and novels to my grandmother’s own experiences, the process was more diverse than I’d expected. My favorite part though, was ending where I began—with my writerly impulse to imagine, to create characters, to tell a story.    

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Who Are You?

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.4.18

This is no. 33 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

“When did you start writing?” Writers are often asked this question, and I’m always curious about the story behind the answers, the paths we take to find our vocations. As a child of immigrants, Korean was my first language. When I began elementary school, I found myself mentally switching between my mother tongue and English, trying to match vocabulary words across language lines. I soon found myself gravitating toward writing; with a pencil in my hand, I could take my time and express myself more clearly. In the first grade, I wrote about butterflies hatching for my beloved teacher, Ms. Benz. The next year, I wrote about a girl with short black hair who wanted to get her ears pierced, but whose Korean parents refused. I presented the story to my mother and father, hopeful and full of glee at my cunning. (Reader, they fell for it and let me pierce my ears.) “I’ve written ever since I was a child,” I say in answer to that question. But when did I find the stories I wanted to tell? That was a more recent discovery.  

As a sophomore in college, I took my first formal writing workshop. Somehow, over the course of my teenage years, my writing had changed. I no longer wrote stories that were rooted in my desires and questions about the world. Instead, I created characters without clear identities—their race, appearance, and backgrounds were murky, undefined. These young adults frolicked and fought on misty hills, drunk with mulberry-stained lips. I was trying to shy away from what I thought was expected of me. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as the Korean American workshopper who could only write about “Asian” issues. But I sensed that something was wrong with my characters: They were vague, flat, lifeless.Who is this girl?” a classmate asked. “Don’t be afraid to write about what you know,” my teacher said. 

At first I resisted these suggestions, digging deeper into my no-name characters without a clear sense of home. That is, until the summer break between my sophomore and junior year. One June evening I had dinner with my parents. Over a meal of galbi-tang, rice, wine, and ice cream, my parents recounted their childhoods. My father described catching grasshoppers from his neighbors’ field, of cooking them on a skillet over an open flame. My mother told me of staining her fingers orange with bong seon hwa flowers, which I loved to do during my summer visits to Korea as well.  

The next morning, I found myself still mulling over my parents’ stories. I imagined my father as a child, his lithe body running through high grass in search of those plump green insects. I loved that the act of staining fingers with flower petals, which my sister and I did every summer in Korea, was not only a family tradition, but a Korean one. These stories stayed with me all summer and through the fall, when my undergraduate classes resumed. This time in my fiction workshop, I wrote with greater purpose and clarity. I developed characters with a culture and history behind them. Better, I thought.

The more I wrote, the more I sought my family. When I began my graduate studies, I turned to my maternal grandmother. A fierce matriarch and gifted storyteller, my grandmother shared her life with me—she lived under Japanese occupation, survived the Korean War, and forged a life for her daughters in the years afterward. I absorbed these anecdotes, sometimes taking notes and sometimes just listening. 

When I began If You Leave Me, my debut novel, I knew I wanted to write about the Korean War. More important, I knew I wanted the main character to be a Korean woman who was strong, willful, intelligent, stubborn, and full of contradictions. I wanted a female protagonist that readers would love one moment and argue with the next, someone who felt as complex as our best friends and lovers do. I created Haemi Lee, a teenaged refugee living in Busan during the war. I rooted her story in my grandmother’s experiences, but I added my own desires and questions and fears until Haemi became a character of her own. 

It took me a few wayward years, but I eventually realized that writing about my culture does not confine me as a writer. Instead, my history provides a pool of memory for me to draw inspiration from. Now, when I teach creative writing, I emphasize this process for my students. I encourage them to value every part of their identities.

“Who are you?” I ask. “Tell me what you know.”

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

The Darkness Within: In Praise of the Unlikable

by

Steve Almond

12.13.17

Last summer I wrote a review of Who Is Rich? (Random House, 2017) by Matthew Klam. The novel is narrated by a man named Rich Fischer, a self-loathing husband and father who conducts an anguished and antic affair with an equally unhappy infidel.

Shortly after I turned in my review, I heard the book discussed on the radio. The segment opened on an odd note. “Rich is a hard man to like,” the host began. I sat back in astonishment—the notion hadn’t even occurred to me. But a quick survey of prepublication reviews revealed that this was, in fact, the consensus view: Rich was whiny, selfish, unsympathetic.

These complaints, it should be noted, weren’t generally directed at his adultery, about which he is so racked with guilt that he attempts to kill himself twice. No, his central offense is that he articulates the miseries of monogamy and parenthood with such tender precision. He’s hard to like, in other words, because he makes the reader feel uncomfortable.

And yet when I survey the books that inspired me to quit journalism and take up fiction two decades ago, every single one features protagonists who are “hard to like” in the exact same way: Birds of America by Lorrie Moore, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, Airships by Barry Hannah, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, the stories of Flannery O’Connor.

My predilection for destructive and discomfiting characters arose, in part, from my years as an investigative reporter, which I spent tracking con men and corrupt cops, shady developers and sexual deviants.

In my reporting, the central danger was detection by the authorities. In literature, the danger was self-revelation. The question was why people messed up their lives and, when they got going, the lives of those around them.

This question began with the characters, but it extended to the reader. Spending time with folks who were morally flawed and ruthlessly candid, who had thrown all manner of caution to the wind, was thrilling specifically because they enacted my own repressed urges. I didn’t just want to rubberneck their misdeeds. I felt implicated by them.

As I turned all this over in my mind, I began to realize why I’d found the scolding critiques of Rich Fischer so vexing. They weren’t just sanctimonious or shallow. There was something cowardly in them, a mind-set that positioned fiction as a place we go to have our virtues affirmed rather than having the confused and wounded parts of ourselves exposed.

***

A lot of ink has been spilled over the past few years on this question of likability, as well as an adjoining anxiety: how important it is that characters be “relatable.” One of the flash points of this debate emerged from the critical reception of Claire Messud’s fierce novel The Woman Upstairs (Knopf, 2013), whose narrator, Nora Eldridge, spends much of the book railing against the forms of feminine duty she has internalized.

When an interviewer for Publishers Weekly observed that she “wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora” because of her “unbearably grim” outlook, Messud’s reply lit up the Internet. “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” she demanded. Messud went on to cite a dozen famously repellent male characters who are rarely, if ever, subjected to such a litmus test. “If you’re reading to find friends,” she concluded, “you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’”

Messud was hailed for confronting what we might call the fallacy of likability, and the ways in which female authors are expected to cleave to this notion.

One of the most fascinating reactions came from novelist Jennifer Weiner. In an essay published by Slate she noted, rightly, that many readers come to fiction hoping to spend time with characters they admire. And she argued that the creators and consumers of such characters shouldn’t be looked down upon.

But Weiner’s defense of likability was undermined by her own resentments. Likable, she insisted, was a code word “employed by literary authors to tell their best-selling brethren that their work sucks.” Her response was to tell Messud that her work sucked.

“There’s no payoff,” Weiner wrote of The Woman Upstairs, “just a 300-page immersion in the acid bath of Nora’s misery, her jealousy, her lack of compassion, her towering sense of entitlement.” Weiner felt Messud had willfully crafted a character to whom no one can relate.

The irony was that Nora elicited such vehement reactions precisely because readers related to her too much. They felt implicated, both by her impotent rage and the despair lurking beneath her grievances. “Above all, in my anger, I was sad,” she confesses. “Isn’t that always the way, that at the heart of the fire is a frozen kernel of sorrow that the fire is trying—valiantly, fruitlessly—to eradicate.”

What I’m getting at here is that the debate about likability ultimately boils down to sensibility. Nora Eldridge’s view of the world, and her place in it, is too dark and intense for some readers. When they pick up a book, they want to be transported to a sunnier precinct, or a more exotic one, with a friendlier companion. They seek a refuge from the anguish of their inner life.

There’s no right or wrong in any of this. It’s a function of what sort of experience we’re after as writers and readers.

***

There’s another unspoken factor in all this: the market. If you’re an unpublished writer seeking representation, and you submit a manuscript with an abrasive protagonist, chances are you’re going to hear from agents concerned about likability. The whole reason Lolita was originally published in France, and nearly three years later in the United States, is that Humbert Humbert’s panting hebephilia was abhorrent to American editors.

Cultural and literary standards evolve, of course. But financial anxieties are forever. Which is why agents and editors remain wary of characters they fear readers will find off-putting. In a world where reading books is itself a marginal activity, one performed in defiance of the perpetual racket of digital distraction, why risk losing sales?

I spent weeks, for instance, arguing with my editor about the section of my memoir, Candyfreak (Algonquin Books, 2004), in which I developed the irrational conviction that I had testicular cancer during a barnstorming tour of U.S. candy bar factories. My editor argued, quite sensibly, that this disclosure made me a lot less likable as a guide. What’s more, it dampened the giddy mood that prevailed elsewhere and guaranteed the book would never be adopted in school curriculums.

The reason I insisted on its inclusion was that I saw my self-diagnosis as an integral part of the story, a symptom of the depression that had reignited my childhood obsession with candy.

I don’t mean to imply that highlighting the repellent traits of a character is some shortcut to literary depth. That’s as foolish as the notion that scenes of graphic violence or sex will magically yield drama.

Some years ago I began a novel about a shameless right-wing demagogue who decides to run for president (I know). The response I got from readers was that my leading man, while fun to hang out with for a little while, was ultimately oppressive. It wasn’t that my leading man had the manners and conscience of a shark but that he had no subtext, no dreams or fears animating his outsize appetites. Nor did he hew to the path of so many unlikable protagonists, the Emma Woodhouses and Ebenezer Scrooges, who are forced to confront their flaws and wind up redeemed in the bargain. My man was self-regarding without being self-aware.

Such a figure might plausibly thrive in the world of politics (again, I know). On the page, he quickly degenerated into caricature. 

***

But what about those characters who refuse to evolve or offer up much in the way of vulnerability? I am thinking here of our most famous villains: Milton’s Satan, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden. These figures, though not technically protagonists, dominate their given worlds.

They do so because they’re willing to violate moral norms and thus wind up driving the action of the story. They’re also fearless in apprehending the nature of the world around them, even if they deny us access to their own inner lives. Most vitally, they embrace the transgressive aspects of their selfhood, the ones we anxiously inhibit so as to appear more likable.

Consider Melville’s Captain Ahab as he stands upon the deck of the Pequod, roaring out the true nature of his mission. “If man will strike, strike through the mask. How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me,” he tells his crew. “I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and…I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

Tell us how you really feel, Ahab.

The reason readers like me gravitate toward characters like Ahab is that, not very deep down, we know ourselves to be equally charged with wrath, besieged by private doubts and grudges, and thus enthralled by those who dare to speak truth in a world overrun by personal forms of marketing.

The rise of Internet culture has only magnified the allure of such figures. Most social media platforms revolve around an elaborate effort to generate “likes” by presenting an airbrushed version of our lives and values. What grants trolls their magnetic power—whether they lurk online or in the White House—is the unacknowledged force of our own suppression.

Moral perfection is admirable, after all, but deadly dull in a literary character. I think here about the figure of Jesus Christ as we encounter him in the New Testament. He says and does all the right things. But he only comes alive as a character in those rarely cited verses when his revolutionary ire and human needs come into view.

The most shocking moment in the Gospels takes place a few days before his appointed end. On the way to Jerusalem, he stops in Bethany, where a woman lovingly anoints his head with perfumed oil.

The act angers some of those who witness it, including Judas Iscariot, who asks Jesus whether the expensive oil could have been put to better use if it was sold and the money given to the poor. “The poor you will always have,” Jesus replies. “But you will not always have me.”

It’s a moment of sensual indulgence and unvarnished pride that’s astonishingly out of character for Jesus. By my reckoning, he’s never more likable. 

***

I don’t expect this piece will do much to settle the question of likability. It’s one of those disputes into which writers will continue to pour their opinions and anxieties.

And that’s probably a good thing, if you think about it. Because we happen to be living in a historical moment ruled by unlikable characters. Take a look at our political and popular culture, at the angry voices emanating from our screens, at the seething violence in our discourse.

As writers, it can feel pointless to engage in literary endeavors when the world around us feels so combustible, so fragile. But I would argue that it has never been more important for writers to engage with the questions literature seeks to answer.

If we are to reclaim our country from the dark forces determined to divide us, to sow discord and cynicism among us, we must first seek to understand the darkness within ourselves. That means turning to stories in which we encounter characters actively engaged in the struggle—and sometimes failing—to contain their unbearable thoughts and feelings.

The urgent question isn’t whether we like these folks. It’s whether, in coming to know them, we come to know ourselves any better.

 

Steve Almond’s book Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country is forthcoming in April from Red Hen Press.

His central offense is that he articulates the miseries of monogamy and parenthood with such tender precision. He’s hard to like, in other words, because he makes the reader feel uncomfortable.

Polite Need Not Apply: A Q&A With Mary Gaitskill

by

Joseph Master

12.11.17

Mary Gaitskill doesn’t believe literature should have to be polite. Do a Google image search of the author and you’ll see a succession of penetrating gazes—pale, wide eyes you just can’t fend off. Gaitskill’s writing, which has earned a National Book Award nomination, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a PEN/Faulkner nomination, has a similar effect. The author whose most recent book is a collection of personal and critical essays, Somebody With a Little Hammer (Pantheon, 2017), is best known for her fiction, having previously published three novels and three story collections. Gaitskill has been labeled “The Jane Austen of sickos,” a moniker that supposes her fiction—famous (and in some circles probably infamous) for its enjambment of sexual brutality with sensuous lyricism—is debauched. While her prose can at times appear as icy as her stare, waves of empathy, soul, and B-12 shots of humor course beneath the surface. From her first book of short stories, Bad Behavior (Simon & Schuster, 1988), which became widely known for “Secretary,” a story of sadomasochism and desire that was made into the 2002 indie film starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, to her most recent novel, The Mare (Pantheon, 2015)Gaitskill’s fiction has always been ferocious, but not for the sake of brutality. The fireworks are in the vulnerability of human connection, not just the spectacle of sex. When she talks about her craft, Gaitskill’s eyes brighten and she smiles often. If you are fortunate enough to speak to her about Chekhov or Nabokov, as I was, you feel thankful for her clairvoyant insights, for her mastery of opinion—for her energizing confidence in what makes a good writer.

In an interview you once said, “Literature is not a realm of politeness.” What’s your style in the classroom? Are you the conditionally supportive teacher or the unconditionally supportive teacher?
I’m sure most people would call me conditionally supportive. I don’t really know what I’m like. I mean, I can’t see myself from the outside. People have described me as blunt. I’m not always, actually. I mean, I’m not always as blunt as I—

As you want to be?
as I might be if I were actually being blunt [laughs]. I’m blunt if I think there is no other way to be. I think my teaching style has also somewhat changed. And again, it’s hard to see myself from the outside. But I think I’ve learned how to be critical in a better way than I used to. In the past, I was so uncomfortable in a position of authority. I had never had a job before where I had any authority at all. My generation is notoriously uncomfortable with authority. That’s why we are terrible parents. I mean, I’m not speaking personally. I am not a parent. But it’s a thing—my generation makes awful parents. Because they’re so busy trying to make their children happy and be a friend to their children and make everything in their life work out that they end up just smothering them, basically.

All unconditional! I guess psychologists would say you need one unconditional and one conditionally loving parent, right? There’s a balance.
I had a similar problem teaching. But, it didn’t show up in the same way. I was just so uncomfortable having to be the authority. And I knew that I had to be. So the things I would say would come out much more forcefully than I actually meant them. It translated into harshness. And it was actually coming from a place of real discomfort and insecurity. But I don’t think the students knew that. Maybe some of them did, some of the time.

I remember a former writing professor, Chuck Kinder, always driving home the principle of Chekhov’s smoking gun. This West Virginian drawl saying, “If there’s a gun, there had better be gun smoke.” What’s your smoking gun principle? Do you have a rule?
I don’t, actually. I think there are very few rules that can’t be broken. I think there is only one that is very difficult to break. I have seen it broken, but not very often. It’s that something has to change. From the beginning of the story to the end, something needs to be different. The only time I’ve ever seen it successfully broken was a Grace Paley story called “A Conversation With My Father.” But as a general rule, something has to change. There has to be some source of tension. And even that can be subtle. Even in the language itself. You know the Flannery O’Conner story “Everything That Rises Must Converge”?

Yes!
The blood pressure. It’s mentioned in, I think, the first or second sentence. The blood pressure is the number-one thing.

Earlier I asked you which short stories of yours I should read, and you immediately responded with “Secretary.” You said you considered it one of your best. So I started there with Bad Behavior. That was your first book. You were thirty-three when it was released. How long did it take you?
About six years.

A first book is like a band’s first record, right? You have your whole life up to that point to write that first collection of words. And you release it. And then people tell you who you are. They say, “Oh, you’re the masochism writer,” or  “you’re the next Dylan.” It can be kind of crushing. Then you have, what? A year? Five years? You have such a shorter time frame to follow it up. What was the difference between writing Bad Behavior and your second book, the 1991 novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin?
Well, there were a couple of things. I had actually started the novel before I sold the story collection. I had written maybe thirty-five pages and stopped, because I just didn’t know what to do. And the reason I picked it up again was because I was in a publisher’s office, and they didn’t know if they wanted to buy the collection or not. And the guy said, “So, do you have a novel?” And I said, “Yeah. Yeah I do.” And he said, “What’s it about?”

And I just started talking about these girls. And they were like, “Oh, ok.” And they wanted to do a two-book deal: the short story collection and the novel.

Well, that certainly worked out.
It didn’t have to do with the process, though. It was much more complicated. Because when I was writing Bad Behavior I could always say to myself, “It doesn’t have to be good. No one is going to see it.” That actually made it possible for me to go forward. I said that to myself literally every time I sat down, repeatedly. “It doesn’t have to be any good. No one will see it.”

Like The Basement Tapes. Dylan and his band didn’t mean for anyone to hear them. They were just hanging out in Woodstock, recording music they never thought would see daylight.
It’s a very helpful thing to say to yourself. And I didn’t have any expectation of how it would be received, either. Whereas with Two Girls I could not say that. I knew people were going to see it. And actually, for the first time, I was self-conscious about how it would be seen. And I felt a desire, an obligation almost, to please certain readers. Because I knew who had liked Bad Behavior and I knew why they liked it. So I was uncomfortable about disappointing those people, perhaps. I tried as hard as I could to put those feelings aside. But it was very difficult.

That had to be jarring.
It was.

Had you ever thought about your limitations as a writer when you were working on that first collection?
Oh, yeah! I thought I was terrible.

You thought you were terrible?
That was the other thing about Two Girls that was different. It was that I had never tried to write a novel before. Short stories are—some people say they are harder, but I don’t think so. And the reason I don’t think so is because it’s just a smaller space to deal with. I mean, some are quite capacious. It’s not that they are easy. I don’t find them easy. But a novel? It’s like I was a cat that had been in a house all of its life, and all of a sudden a door was flung open. And I was flooded with sights and smells and was crazily running over in one direction wondering what was going on there and getting distracted. And then running in the other direction. It was a total feeling of freedom. But I didn’t know what to do with it. It was very hard to figure out what I wanted to pay attention to and how to structure it. And stories are way more manageable that way.

Being flooded with sights and smells. Yes. So appropriate, because your fourth novel, Veronica (Pantheon, 2005), is flooded with sights and smells and senses that overlap and eclipse each other. Let’s start with the origin myth that opens the book —the dark folktale told to the narrator, Alison, by her mother. Alison revisits this story for the rest of her life. It haunts her. At one point she admits that she felt it more than she heard it. At what phase in the process of writing this novel did you write the beginning—this story that keeps coming back?
I added that later.

Was there a Lebowski’s Rug moment, when you arrived at this origin story and added it, and it really brought the whole room together?
Honestly, it was because someone who read a draft of the book said it reminded them of the tale The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf. It’s Hans Christian Anderson. And I said, “Really, what’s that?” And I went and looked it up. And I agreed. I thought it was perfect.

Those old tales are soul crushing and beautiful, but also scary as hell. It’s scary being a kid.
Right. Because everybody’s bigger than you. And they are weird! [Laughs.]

You’ve mentioned a soul-quality in writing. I’ve read interviews where you break it down to the molecular level. I guess it’s a voice quality, right? This energy. How did you find that? And how in the world do you teach that?
I don’t know. How did I arrive at the voice quality?

Yes. This energy in your writing, the music of it. The way you describe these grotesquely beautiful things. It’s your voice. What all MFA students want so badly to get, I think, is their own version of that.
I used to tell students, “I want to see it how only you can see it. I don’t want to see it how a hundred people would see it.” I was basically telling them not to rely on shared perception. There isn’t anything wrong with shared perception. It can be a beautiful thing, and I think music relies partly on shared perception, or it assumes a certain kind of shared perception, rightly or wrongly. Because you feel, in a group of people, that you are hearing it the same, although you’re probably not. You feel that commonality. Slang. Expressions. There are certain things that make shared perception beautiful. You can’t have a conversation without it. But when you’re reading a story, it’s a different thing. It’s much more intimate. It’s much more like…you’re wanting to get the pith of what that person feels and sees. It’s more like that.

Music plays a huge, great part in Veronica. What’s your soundtrack?
You mean, what music do I listen to?

Yes. When you’re writing, or on the train with your headphones. What are you listening to?
I’m really sorry to say this, but I don’t have those things. I don’t like that. I don’t want to walk around listening to music and not listening to what’s happening. It’s bad enough that I’m glued to my phone. I’m not going to go there with music. But right now I’m also at a disadvantage, because I don’t have a good sound system. So I’ve been listening to music on my computer and I just don’t like it as much. Like, when I had a good sound system, I used to put on music and just walk around, drinking a glass of wine, just listening to it.

In your writing, you slip in and out of time seamlessly. In Veronica, you’re like a time bandit. We’re talking a really adult version of Madeleine L’Engle. The book spans decades of Alison’s life—from her teenage years in Paris in the 70s to New York in the 80s, where she meets Veronica, and she’s narrating when she’s in her fifties. There are certain sentences that stretch between two different moments. Considering the amount of time the book covers, there has to be a level of trust—in your own ability to do that, but also that the reader will trust this time machine you’re driving. Was that hard to do? Did you question that?
Yeah, I did question if it was a good idea or not. I was afraid it would be too arty, or just too hard to follow. Yeah, I wondered about that.

For me, that kind of movement through time made everything move faster. It made my heart beat faster, especially as the book went on.
Well, thank you. I did it, for one thing, well, I felt like I had to blend the times because the book is focused on something in the past, and the narrator is in the present. But also because I was at an age where I felt like time was blending for me, personally, in a way that it hadn’t before.

How so?
I think when you get to a certain age, and for some people it may be in their forties or for other people it may be in their sixties—I’m not sure—but I think for everybody it happens that your relationship with time changes and you see the future or the present, and it becomes like a palimpsest for the past, and you just kind of blur things. And it’s not necessarily in a confused way, but sometimes it is. Like, you can talk to very old people and they’ll think something happened. Recently, my mother thought that her mother gave her the book, Born Free by Elsa the Lioness. And that’s not possible. My mother wasn’t alive when that book was written. But in her mind it absolutely must have been that way. She’s blending something. I think that starts to happen in middle age. Not in the sense that you’re confused, but that your connections of when things happen in time, spatially, are just different.

So, let’s talk about sexuality. Never have I read fiction regarding sexuality that made me feel quite the same way—that way I felt when reading Veronica.
When you say “that way,” what do you mean?

As a male, reading about sex—this beautifully painful account of health, illness, death, with all of this sometimes brutal sex—I felt my own mortality. I became very aware of my heartbeat and my breathing. Thinking about all the cigarettes I had smoked a long time ago. It made me anxious. It hurt. And I saw all of this through the eyes of Alison, a model, who is absolutely nothing like me. At all. I related to it. Absolutely, in the moment, related to it. And it’s hard enough for me to be in the moment, ever.
Me, too.

At one point Alison says she sees how men can look at pictures and feel things. She’s trying to see the world through the eyes of the other, and reading the book as a man, I was doing the same thing backwards, through her eyes. Have you found that the reaction to your writing has been starkly different along gender lines? That men have a different response? Like, me, how I am getting super uncomfortable talking about it with you right now?
Oh, it doesn’t make me uncomfortable at all. I don’t really know. Someone wrote an article about how horrible she thinks men are when they write about me. And it’s true that some male critics have been unusually nasty. But it’s also true that once, a long time ago, for my own curiosity, I went through all the reviews and divided them into male and female. And then I added up where the most negative ones came from. They came from women. So, I think women are more likely to relate to my writing in a superficial way, because most of my characters are women. I don’t really know if there is a predictable breakdown.

I thought my last book, The Mare, would not be read by men at all. The Mare is all female characters with specifically female issues. And there isn’t a whole lot of sex in it. Even the horses are female. But men read it and liked it. I mean I don’t know how many. I can’t really say for sure. I am thinking, though, that some men seem to view it with horror that seems gendered.

Recently, Veronica was republished in England and my editor decided to have a personal friend of hers write an introduction. I can’t remember the guy’s name. He’s an English writer whom she says is very respected, but I’ve never heard of him. And he spent a lot of time—and he was a fan, apparently—talking about the horrifying, degrading imagery that I use about men. In one of these horrifying examples, Alison was thinking about a guy, and I hope you don’t mind me using this language. She’s having sex with somebody, and she can feel his asshole tingling on the end of his spine. In the context of writing, that does not seem especially degrading or at all degrading to me. If you were saying that to someone, it might be different, depending on who they are and how you said it. But the idea of somebody thinking that, in private, in a fictional novel, I don’t understand. I scratched him doing the introduction and I did it myself. And I wrote back to [my editor] and said, “Has this guy ever read Philip Roth or Saul Bellow? What makes him so shocked by this?”

In conversation it might be a shocking remark, but not in a novel, in somebody’s head. And that’s what I mean by politeness not applying to literature. There’s a different standard than at a party. I really did wonder if he would have reacted that way if it was a male writing about a female he was having sex with.

Well, I think there is maybe a double standard when it comes to writing about sex. Men might get more of a pass, right? And I’ve never read anything about sex that was written quite like that.
Thanks. Except I would normally disagree with that. I think women get more of a pass. For sexist reasons, actually, sexuality is considered the purview of women. It’s like women’s area of authority. Women can write really dirty things without being criticized as much. Are you aware of Nicholson Baker’s book The Fermata?

No.
It’s a pretty dirty book. It’s a fantasy book. Have you read him at all?

No, I haven’t. I guess I should.
Beautiful writer. Line by line, probably the best writer in America, in my opinion.  Line by line, though, not by the whole content, necessarily. Well, The Fermata was one of his lighter books. He’s better known for Vox, because Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky read it together. Or for The Mezzanine. But The Fermata is about somebody who can stop time, and he uses it to take women’s clothes off…

Oh! Yes…he masturbates on their clothes?
He masturbates, but he doesn’t do it on their clothes. My, that book got outraged reviews. People said it was violent, degrading, disgusting. It was none of those things. It was a totally harmless fantasy. And I think if a woman had written it, it would have been different. Have you ever read Natsuo Kirino?

No. You know what? Not only have I probably not read any of the books you’re mentioning, I’m probably going to get a big complex about it. 
No. Don’t worry. I’ve hardly read anything. But Natsuo Kirino, one of her books that I really like, in one of the final scenes is this guy who has been stalking her and finally gets her tied up and he’s planning to torture her and he’s cutting her and he’s raping her. And she actually responds to him. But she’s actually tricking him. She ends up killing him. And he almost likes it. She cuts his throat and he dies slowly. I don’t remember the words, but it’s almost like he says, “I love you” in the end. If a man wrote that scene, he’d be considered the equivalent of a murderer. He wouldn’t be able to show his face in public.

Well, I guess I’ll have to read that now…
It’s true, though. I think women are allowed to be much more outrageous sexually, in general, than men. What some of the male critics, who have been nasty, are responding to—and this one guy said that reading me was like being sodomized by an icy dildo—

Um, does he know what that’s like?
[Laughs] Oh, I suspect he doesn’t. Because if he did, he would never make such a ridiculous comparison. But, in a way, it’s a huge compliment, because I have never read anyone in my life who would make me feel even remotely like that. So he must think I’m some kind of badass.

What I think makes people like that uncomfortable isn’t the level of sexual detail. I think it makes them feel emotionally uncomfortable. Because they feel emotionally exposed. Lots of people write about sex very graphically.

Switching gears, you really describe the beauty and sometimes ugliness of voices. The sound of them. And you do it visually, too. Alison will describe how something looks as a sound. Are you the kind of person who can be enthralled, or just totally turned off, by the timbre of someone’s voice?
Oh yeah. I’m really, really voice responsive. When I was very young, at home, in the other room doing homework, some guy came to see one of my sisters. And I was so revolted by his voice, I could hardly bare to listen to it. And when he left I walked in the room and I said, “Who was that?” And I said, “He’s a horrible person.”

It turned out he was, actually. He had sexually molested somebody and later he made obscene calls to one of my sisters. I’m not saying I can do that all the time, but I am very voice reactive. And I can even fall in love with somebody just by the sound of their voice. I mean, I may not stay in love with them [laughs]. And it might not mean they’re a wonderful person. Although, interestingly, when I first heard my husband’s voice, I didn’t like it. But that changed. I’m not completely wedded to that impression. But it does mean something.

I read you once say that Debbie from “Secretary” was no older than eighteen. And I thought, “Wow. What an erudite, literate eighteen-year-old.”
Really, you think?

Oh yeah. That first-person narrator in that third-person universe? Totally.
It’s pretty simple, I think.

But what we can get to here is the idea of the reliability of a narrator. In Veronica, you use the first-person narrator, and you nailed the trust—the narrator was so reliable. How do you confer that trust? What advice do you give students to find that place?
I’ve always found the concept of the reliable versus the unreliable narrator peculiar, because I think all narrators are unreliable [laughs]. People tell you what they saw or what they think or what they felt, and they may be telling you the truth, but it might not at all be what someone else saw happen. Like, people always call Humbert Humbert an unreliable narrator. He’s very reliable. He’ll tell you exactly what he thought and felt in a lot of detail. And you also get a very clear sense of what Lolita is experiencing through him. But I don’t think of it as unreliable. I think more in terms, and this sounds really corny, I think more in terms of, “Do I care what this narrator thinks and feels? Can he engage me?”

With students, the problem I see most often is that I don’t get a sense of what their narrators care about. What they want. What matters to them. That’s a bigger issue to me than whether or not they’re reliable in some way.

Would you agree if I were to say that you are hard on your readers?
I don’t know [laughs]. It probably depends on the reader. I’m sure some people read my stuff and think it’s fun. And some people might think it’s boring.

Your writing? Boring?

Sure. I think Bad Behavior is boring, quite frankly. I had to read it for an audio book. I was just like, “Oh…”

For some readers it is hard. I guess I do know that for a fact. I’ve seen complaints. I’ve seen people talk about how hard it is. So it must be. But it’s not something I set out to do.

I guess we have a theme here, of conditional versus unconditional. Reading your work, I found it very hard on the reader. Not in a pejorative sense. I found it absolutely conditionally loving. It gives me everything I need, but as you once said, there is a thin line between absolute excitement and humiliation—and you thrive on that line.
I said that?

Yep.
Where?

I think in New York Times Magazine, actually.
Wow. I never read that one.

You’re tackling incredibly emotionally intense, sexually intense, illness, health, and death…
It’s true. That line.

It’s so interesting that you bring that up because a student of mine just workshopped a story; the ending is a scene in which the male character is really ashamed of his body and his girlfriend is really beautiful and she decides she wants him to pose naked for pictures. And it’s a potentially very powerful scene because it can potentially be a very horrible experience. And he’s just so uncomfortable. It would be very much a thin line. And it could be one of those things where it could be great or just really, really awful. Or both.

I’d say great and awful at the same time would be the goal, right?
Oh, yeah. For a lot of people, yeah. Because it’s the whole picture.

I think that’s what I would say about your writing. 
Well, thank you.

 

Joseph Master is the executive director of marketing and digital strategy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. His freelance work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, television commercials, and on tiny screens across the nation. He studied creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh.

Mary Gaitskill, whose most recent book is the essay collection Somebody With a Little Hammer

(Credit: Derek Shapton)

Where the Past Begins: An Interview With Amy Tan

by

Alison Singh Gee

10.13.17

This past summer, while speaking on a panel at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference, Amy Tan surprised an audience full of aspiring authors with an admission: “There are times when I think to myself, ‘I’ve lost it completely,’” she said. “‘That’s it. It’s over. I will never write again.’” She shook her head and added, “It took me eight years to write the last novel. It seems like with every novel, it gets harder and harder.”

Tan, the author of six novels, including The Joy Luck Club (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989), as well as two children’s books, struggled with writing her last novel, The Valley of Amazement, first exploring one storyline for about five years, ditching much of it, and basically starting over, finally completing the book some three years later. Published by Ecco in 2013, the novel followed the odyssey of a young biracial courtesan as she searches for her American madam during the early twentieth-century in China.

As she grappled with her voice on the page, her public voice—on Facebook, notably—was becoming pointedly more personal and urgent, poking at topics that ranged from the whimsical (her beloved terriers and her latest sculptural haircuts) to the controversial (politicians she despises). In post after post on social media, Tan examined and confronted the world around her and the world within her. It was during this period that she began e-mailing with her editor, Daniel Halpern at Ecco, who she started working with on The Valley of Amazement, a little more than a decade after Faith Sales, her longtime editor at Putnam, died in 1999.

Halpern would send Tan a question, and the author would fire off a witty retort, or sometimes a very long missive. Once, for instance, Halpern asked the writer for a synopsis of her yet-to-be-written novel and Tan shot back a four-thousand-word response about why she hates writing synopses. All of these missives had a vital quality in common: spontaneity.

Buoyed by the vibrancy of their dashed-off e-mails, Tan decided to write a memoir, Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir, published this month by Ecco. The book collects Tan’s unguarded, free-flowing writing in response to family documents, personal photographs and journal entries she had collected throughout her life, which began in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she grew up the daughter of immigrant parents from China. The results of this personal research deeply surprised the author. In examining photographs of her grandmother and the clothing she wore, Tan discovered that her grandmother had most likely been a courtesan. In rereading letters she and her mother had exchanged before her death in 1999, the author realized they had remained close, even during the times that Tan tried to distance herself, and that her mother had felt that her daughter had truly understood her. The relationship between a mother and a daughter has formed the basis of much of Tan’s work, from The Joy Luck Club, which consists of stories about the experiences of four Chinese American mothers and their daughters, to The Bonesetter’s Daughter (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001), about an immigrant Chinese woman and her American-born daughter.

Tan, who readily admits that in writing her novels she labors over every sentence, discovered something vital about her writing process: that if she just shut out her self-conscious voice and wrote, she could capture something vital, intimate, and authentic on the page. “Writing this book was very painful,” she says. “But it was exhilarating, too.” 

I recently spoke with Tan about her approach to memoir and how this shift in process changed the way she views her fiction writing. 

You’ve written six novels, two children’s books, and one collection of essays. A memoir is a departure of sorts. Why did you decide to switch literary camps?
I would say I was lured into writing this book. It was the suggestion of my publisher, Dan Halpern, who thought I needed an in-between book—as in, between my novels. At first he thought we could put together a whole book of our e-mails. I said, “That’s a terrible idea.” But he kept insisting that it would be good. We could turn our e-mails from when we were first getting together into essays about writing. Then I looked at them and said, “This is never going to work.” And he finally agreed.

But by then this book had already been announced. And I was stuck writing it. At first I started writing something esoteric about language, but it was coming out all wrong and stiff. So I decided I was just going to write whatever comes to mind. It was going to be a memoir but it was going to be spontaneous.

But you’re known as a literary craftsperson, laboring over every sentence. How did you decide that spontaneity was the way forward?
This was one of the things I learned about creativity. You have to let go of self-consciousness. When I started thinking about this book, I knew that if I felt self-conscious while writing, it would probably come out bit by bit and it would not be as honest.

So I told Dan I would send him fifteen to twenty pages of writing every week. I imposed this crazy deadline on myself. I was just writing spontaneous sentences and not doing much in the way of revision. And this is what came out.

Throughout the writing of this book I was both excited and nervous. I didn’t know what I was going to find. It was like when you go to the circus and you’re about to see the next act. You’re looking forward to it but you’re also scared out of your mind. You’re worried that the trapeze artist is going to die. The process had a suspense to it. Even though I was writing about my life, here, I was writing about what I felt about certain experiences. There’s a difference between a narrative of facts and what happened in your life.

This was about what I felt about certain experiences and the association of that experience with another, and another beyond that. It was about who I am as an adult and reflecting on the core of these experiences.

What was your process? How did you organize the mining of these moments in your life?
I had collected all these things from my family and my own life, not ever thinking that I would write from them. I am sentimental; I have things from my high school, like my student-body card. I had like eighty boxes of this stuff in my garage. I kept them with the idea that I would one day go through them and get rid of a bunch and keep a couple of things. Then I thought, I will just pull something out of the boxes, and if it intrigues me I will write about it. So the process was: I stuck my hand in a box and what came out I wrote about.

It wasn’t as though I had it all lined up, like I wanted to write about this and this. The process was surprising, shocking. It was exhilarating, a mix of emotions. It brought about those things you get out of writing—you know, you have these epiphanies and discoveries. It was an affirmation of why we write.

How did this differ from writing your novels?
Writing fiction allows me the subterfuge of it being fiction. I can change things from real life. I can still go to an emotional core but not as intensely.

Fiction is a way to bring up emotions that I have and to get a better understanding of the situation. But I found that writing memoir brought up ten times the amount of emotion I have while writing fiction. This was truly an unexpected book. I kept telling Dan, “I hate this book.” It seems so personal, like an invasion of privacy. It’s as though I let people into my bedroom and into my darkest moments. I haven’t had time to really meditate over this as I would have liked—you know that word: process. I haven’t even had reflection time to sort out my emotions.

You seem to have lived a remarkably dramatic life and so did your mother, so did your grandmother. Your grandmother was likely a courtesan, one who committed suicide by swallowing raw opium. Your mother, in choosing to leave behind an abusive husband in China, also had to leave her daughters behind as she moved to America for a new life. And I read an article in which you mentioned that you had been sexually molested as a child, held up at gun point, experienced the death of both your father and older brother within six months of each other, and lived with a mother who threatened to kill herself on many occasions, and threatened to kill you with a cleaver on another occasion. In taking stock of this generational trajectory, did you have it in your head that you would one day make sense of all this as a writer?
Well, that’s what I was doing all along with my fiction. I was writing about things, and these moments would come up spontaneously, intuitively, naturally, as part of a narrative in which I was trying to make sense of a story.

For example, when I was writing The Joy Luck Club, I was writing to understand my mother more. But not to the extent that I did in writing this particular book—there was so much turmoil. When I examined for this memoir, in a very concentrated way, what it was like to live with my mother and her suicidal rages, it was so painful. The horror of seeing her put her leg out of a car and knowing that she might possibly die.

Is it meaningful to your memoir writing that your mother, who you’ve described as your muse, died almost two decades ago? How has that freed you to write autobiographically?
I wonder every once in a while what my mother would have thought about the things I wrote in this memoir. Would she have been upset or really happy? Would she be angry? When she was alive, anytime I wrote about her, even when I wrote terrible things, she was thrilled because it was about her. I could have written that she tried to kill me, and she would have been delighted. She’d say something like, “Now you understand how I feel.” My mother was an emotional exhibitionist.

My father, a minister, would have been wounded. In this book I wrote these things about him being sincere but shallow. He depended too much on the pat phrases of the Bible. Rather than truly feeling what somebody was going through, he wanted to solve things and be a good minister. He was so blind to what was going on in his own family. He didn’t have compassion for my little brother and me and what we might have been going through.

Was there difficult material that you left out of the book? If so, how do you feel about that decision now?
We took out about ten or twelve pieces and there was one, actually, that I debated over. Dan and I agreed that it was a little too risky. It was a letter I wrote to a minister based on having been abused when I was fifteen by their youth minister. This person I was writing to was not the minister when this happened. My point in the piece was that his church is a house of worship and it’s a continuous fellowship. I wrote that he is proud of the story of his church but he has to add this to its history. His house of worship has a stain on it.

I finally said, “We have to take this piece out. It goes off the path. It doesn’t enhance what I’m trying to write about.”

Are you happy with that decision or do you regret it?
I’m happy with the decision. Sometimes you write something and it becomes almost retribution, a desire to get even. In this memoir, I could have written about betrayal. I could have written about people who deeply wounded me, but why? I could have written about the fact that my mother went through her life feeling betrayed and that is a mark she put on me. I now have very strong feelings about betrayal and condescension. But I don’t want betrayals to be a dominant part of my life, and if I had written about them I would have given them more importance than I wanted to give them.

How did you push past your emotional blocks to include difficult information and lines of questioning?
In this book I say something about writing and honesty. And it has to do with spontaneity. If you are going to get to some emotional core and truth, you have to write spontaneously. You have to let go of that frontal lobe that says, “Oh, but my father will read this.” You can look at your writing later and say, “Oh my God, my father is going to kill me when he reads this, or he’s going to kill himself.” And then you will know what to leave in or take out. Or you wait until your father’s death. But if you start out in your writing having these concerns, maybe you are writing things that are vindictive. Or maybe you are not ready to write these scenes. Maybe you need to write them later. Maybe you need to take it from a different angle and it will come out in a different way. But I think that if you always write with compassion and understanding, then you stand a good chance of having that person understand why you are writing this. That you weren’t trying to be vindictive. Being vindictive is an automatic no.

Will you take this technique of spontaneity back to your fiction writing? How else will this foray into memoir affect your work as a novelist?
I always thought as I wrote fiction that I was making discoveries, deep discoveries. I was surprised by how much deeper these went as I was writing this memoir. How much more trouble the memories are and how much more risk I had to take to go into it.

Fiction offers us a subterfuge—I keep using this word—it’s almost similar to donning a costume when I go onstage as a ridiculous singer [as she does as a member of the literary rock band, The Rock Bottom Remainders, whose other members have included Stephen King, Scott Turow, Barbara Kingsolver, and others]. If I wear the costume, I can do ridiculous singing because it’s supposed to be in the guise of a silly person.

I am much closer to who I am when I am writing fiction, but there is still a separation. I write my fiction in the first person but writing memoir is truly first person.

I wonder if, in writing fiction, I am going to be as close to the material now, as I was as writing the memoir. With fiction I will still have that protective mechanism. For my memoir I fell into this safety zone of fiction when I wrote that memory of being in the car with my mother as she threatened to commit suicide. I had to write that in the third person. At first, I wrote it in the first person and I had to take it in the third person because it was so painful. I could only get it out in the third person.

At the same time, I think that writing fiction can be very fun. It allows you to be reflective, and at the same time and there’s the art and craft of fiction that I like. So I don’t think I would ever continue to just write memoir.

You mention that you have a “messy narrative style,” that you might start a novel using one voice speaking from a particular period of time but then you shift to another voice speaking from another period of time. Does this have to do with the dual narrative you lived with your mother?
This seems to be true about every book I’ve written. I start in the present and then go into the past. I think this has to do with an interior sense that whatever is happening in one particular time has a connection to another. I’m really fascinated by what that connection might be.

It’s not always a direct connection. For example, my father was a Christian minister and very devout. That does not mean that the connection to me was that I became a Christian minister or very devout. But what it did do for me was made me question what I do believe and why. And also that I am interested in having a purpose in life, rather than a random one. 

At Squaw Valley you said something surprising—and probably very buoying to many writers—that sometimes you face a blank page and think that you have lost the ability to write another word. But then you start to write again. What’s gets you over that hump and onto writing the next page?
I sometimes have this existential dread that I will never write again. Or, I’m not a writer, or this book isn’t going anywhere. Everyone is going to be disappointed. It makes me sick. Then I just say, “Get over it, you are not the end of the world.”

I’m not a disciplined writer at all. I would never want to convey that and make other writers anxious.

What happened with this memoir is that I gave myself a self-imposed deadline—fifteen to twenty pages a week—and I allowed myself to write bad pages. That’s the thing. Allow yourself to write bad pages and just continue to write spontaneously and in that writer’s mind. Write as much as you can without self-consciousness over bad sentences. Write knowing it’s going to be imperfect—that’s important. Just press on. You might look at it later and maybe you have to throw everything away. But there might be something in there that is valuable, that you can keep.

What three or four qualities make a “literary writer”?
Ah, that’s a terrible term. It has triggered a response equal to what the word “liberals” has attracted from Trump supporters. Being a literary writer might mean that you think you’re better than everybody else, or what literary means is that you’re incomprehensible to about 90 percent of mainstream readers.

But, okay. A literary writer is serious about craft, and doing something original, writing a story that contains an important idea. Literary writing has an important theme and it comes through naturally, logically, imperatively.

What qualities make a superstar writer?
Luck. And some kind of style. There is a great deal of luck involved. You have to get recognized and read. You’re lucky if your book falls into the right hands and if it didn’t come out the day after 9/11. Beyond that, it is having established a voice that people enjoy or want to hear from and being able to provide that.

Superstar writers are not necessarily the best writers. Some have written the same book over and over again. They may have a formula that readers want. Superstar writers have that down. They can be depended upon to deliver what readers like to read. I’m not counting myself as a superstar writer, by the way.

What’s next for you?
My new book is a novel, The Memory of Desire. It’s a book that I dreamed up. The structure, the characters and the setting—they literally came to me in a dream. It is so gratifying to get the setting down. For me, it’s a major part of starting a book. But keep in mind, what works for me may not work for you. 

 

Alison Singh Gee is an award-winning journalist and the author of the Hong Kong-India memoir, Where the Peacocks Sing, about her comical and complicated relationship with her husband’s family palace in Northern India. She teaches creative nonfiction and literary travel writing at UCLA Extension. Find her at Facebook.com/AlisonSinghGee.

Amy Tan, whose new book is Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir, published by Ecco in October.

(Credit: Julian Johnson)

The Heart of the Novel: Nicholas Montemarano and Eric Puchner

11.6.17

If you want to lose and then find yourself in stories of modern family life, look no further than the fiction of Nicholas Montemarano and Eric Puchner. Both authors peer into the beautiful messiness of contemporary America by way of its homes: the high stakes of our daily rituals, the turmoil beneath serenity, the white lies and longings that hold it all together. Puchner is author of the beloved story collections Last Day on Earth (Scribner, 2017) and Music Through the Floor (Scribner, 2005), as well as the novel Model Home (Scribner, 2010), which won the California Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Montemarano is the author of two critically acclaimed novels, The Book of Why (Little, Brown, 2013) and A Fine Place (Context Books, 2002), and the short story collection If the Sky Falls (Louisiana State University Press, 2005), a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Now he’s celebrating the release of his third novel, The Senator’s Children, published this month by Tin House Books. Centered on two sisters who have never met, it is an intimate family drama about a political scandal and the personal aftermath. Puchner read an advance copy and was enthralled. “This engrossing, brilliantly structured novel takes a familiar situation—the implosion of a presidential candidate’s career—and creates a thing of heartbreaking beauty out of it,” he writes. “By asking whether forgiveness can conquer blame, and whether we might even be able to treat strangers like family, The Senator’s Children feels like exactly the kind of novel we need.”

So Eric Puchner and Nicholas Montemarano got in touch, and what started as an e-mail exchange in the fall of 2017 turned into a literary deep-dive. The two discussed scandals and second chances, finding the heart of the novel, and blurring the personal and political.

Eric Puchner: The Senator’s Children feels like a departure for you in terms of material. One of the things I admire about it, in fact, is that you take a familiar subject, one that’s sort of ripped from the history books—the infidelity of a presidential candidate and its ramifications on his career and family—and find a brand new story to tell.  What compelled you to write about a political scandal?

Nicholas Montemarano: This novel does feel like a departure in some ways—I never expected to write about a political scandal—but in other ways, it continues a preoccupation of mine. So much of what I’ve written—I realized this only after I completed The Senator’s Children—is about families, specifically how they cope with the aftermath of tragedy. My first urge to write this novel came after listening to a late-night talk show host lampoon a politician whose career and life were falling apart. I was compelled less by the fact that this man was a politician and more that he was a public figure being mocked when privately he and his family must have been in great pain. I had an especially strong reaction to the audience’s laughter. I may have been the only person in America, for all I know, who felt sorry for this man, his wife, and his children. We like to see the mighty fall, and then we love the redemption story that often follows. But this politician—the one who was the butt of so many jokes—there wasn’t going to be a second act for him. Not a chance, not after what he did. I couldn’t help but wonder what the rest of life would be like for a person who had become such a pariah.

EP: That’s another thing I admire about the book, the sympathy you show each and every character—not only David, the disgraced senator, but also “the other woman” who in some ways conspires to take David down. Was there a particular character you found hard to empathize with at first? Who was the trickiest character to write your way into?

NM: David Christie was unfaithful to his wife while he was running for president—and while she was battling cancer. Can you feel sympathy for someone who did that? Well, that was one question I set out to ask in my novel. The answer, for me, was surprisingly immediate: yes, of course. The challenge, then, was to bring out those aspects of David that might evoke empathy in readers. On the other hand, Rae, the woman with whom David has the affair—she was more of a challenge. In early drafts, she wasn’t very sympathetic. She was too interested in cashing in on the affair; she wanted to write a book about it and still hoped, years after the affair, to win over David. But she struck me as a caricature, a cultural footnote you might see on a reality TV show (in fact, I had her on a reality TV show in the first draft). So I had to dig deeper and allow her to be flawed—she can be needy and self-absorbed—but sympathetic. In her case, her saving grace is that she loves her daughter.

EP: We’ve been talking about David and the other woman, but the novel’s called The Senator’s Children. For me the emotional heart of it is the story of the two sisters, Betsy and Avery, who don’t know each other because one of them is the living proof of their father’s scandal. It’s just such a fraught, thematically rich situation. Did you know from the beginning that you would focus on David’s two daughters and their very divergent trajectories in life? And that these trajectories would eventually cross?

NM: I was just talking about this last week with my students. I showed them the pages in my notebook from 2011 when I wrote down my first thoughts about this novel. It was called The Senator. But a few weeks later, the working title became The Senator’s Daughter because I decided that its focus—and its narrator—would be Avery, the daughter born from the affair. I wrote the first paragraph—which no longer exists in the novel—and then one page later in my notes, I wrote: The Senator’s Children. I could see myself changing my mind and discovering what the heart of the novel would be. Even at that early stage, I knew who David Christie’s three children were and that his two daughters, estranged from their father to varying degrees, would collide late in the novel. I wrote pages of notes about them. It’s amazing to me that, after five years and so many drafts, much of those first notes I wrote about them remain true. Some things we know from the very beginning, and other things we have to write our way towards knowing.

EP: I wonder about that in relation to the novel’s structure. Another thing that impresses me is the way it moves so unexpectedly through time, toggling between the mid-eighties, the early nineties, 2010, and (in the final section) 1977. I found this to be the source of a lot of the book’s poignancy and power. (In some ways, it feels like the real subject of the novel is time and its irrevocability.) Was the jumping-around-in-time structure something you knew you were going to have from the beginning, or is it something that evolved during the drafting process?   

NM: I really like what you just said about time and its irrevocability—yes! If I had to choose two words that seem to capture my books thus far, they would be: time and regret. What is the life span of a terrible mistake? Can time heal even our deepest wounds? Or do those wounds fester and multiply? I’ve written three novels, and all of them move around in time. It’s difficult for me to imagine writing a novel that doesn’t; it just feels natural to me. As a reader, I’m drawn to nonlinear narratives. Many of my favorite books—The Things They Carried, Jesus’ Son, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City—jump around in time. Or skip ahead, like the “Time Passes” section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Or move backwards like Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal. Julia Pierpont’s Among the Ten Thousand Things, one of my favorite novels in recent years, includes surprising flash-forwards. Time jumps can be so powerful. We’re here, then suddenly we’ve jumped ahead, or back, and important things happen in that white space. I remember turning the page to Part Two of your novel, Model Home, and seeing that time had jumped ahead a year—even a small time jump like that excites me. I’m like, what did I miss? What happened between those two pages? The ending of The Senator’s Children, the final jump back in time—as soon as it happened, it thrilled me; I knew it was right.

EP: I want to ask you about the language in the book, which feels whittled down to its very essence—there’s a kind of spareness to it that feels evocative and hard-boiled at the same time.  Reading it, I couldn’t help thinking of Babel’s dictum that “only a genius can afford two adjectives to a noun,” except that it seems to me you’ve decided to get rid of adjectives altogether. Is this ultra-spare voice something that comes easily and naturally to you? Or, like Isaac Babel, do you “go over each sentence, time and again,” taking out anything extraneous?

NM: Eventually, I had to give myself over to sparer prose. During revision, it won me over and convinced me that it would be best for the novel. The first draft was bigger, louder, stylistically and formally explosive, multiple narrators, very voice-driven. With each draft, more of that fell away. The aspects of the first draft I was most enamored with were exposed as just that—writing I was too enamored with and attached to. The revision process was one of whittling down me, so to speak. The novel couldn’t be about me being a good writer or making some interesting moves; everything had to be at the service of the story. And so with each revision the novel became quieter and more intimate. Whenever my editor and I spoke about the later drafts of the novel, we always came back to intimacy—that was the novel’s strength, she kept telling me, and I came to believe her. It’s amazing to see how much the novel changed through revision—more than any other book I’ve written.

EP: Speaking of change, the biggest change that happened between your writing of this novel and its publication was the election of Trump. You wrote the novel before Trump’s infamous Hollywood Access tape, which—unlike David’s indiscretion—didn’t end up crushing Trump’s chances at the presidency and makes the Monica Lewinski scandal seem almost quaint. Has Trump’s ascendancy changed your perspective on the novel in any way? Would you write the same book in 2017?

NM: I would. Trump, of course, has reset almost everything when it comes to politics. But families—it seems to me that they remain the same. And I really see The Senator’s Children as a family novel more than a political novel. I set David’s run for the presidency in 1991 and 1992 mostly by necessity: I needed Avery, his daughter outside his marriage, to be in college during the present narrative in 2010. But setting the political scandal twenty-five years ago turned out to be interesting. I had a chance to revisit some of the political sex scandals around that time. In the case of Gary Hart in 1987, a photograph brought down his run for the Democratic nomination. But during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton was able to overcome allegations of infidelity and win his party’s nomination and the White House. David Christie’s fate was closer to Hart’s. Or John Edwards’s in 2008. Some readers of The Senator’s Children have told me that the political world depicted in my novel feels, in the Age of Trump, like a throwback to a more civil time. Politics, of course, has always been a rough sport—and a fascinating one. But I’m a writer more interested in the private—what happens behind closed doors when the shit hits the fan, how families cope, how people lose each other, or hold on.

Novelists Nicholas Montemarano (left), author of The Senator’s Children; and Eric Puchner.

Craft Capsule: Find Your Voice

by

Simon Van Booy

6.27.18

This is no. 32 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Would you agree that for the past forty years, automobiles have been evolving in such a way as they now all look alike? As though created from the same, basic mold? One of the most important things you can do for yourself as a writer is to find your voice. I don’t mean tone, which is another way of referring to how writing makes you feel. The tone of this piece for Poets & Writers is very different from the tone of my latest novel, or the tone of the philosophy books I edited several years ago.  

I’m talking about voice. My voice can be squeezed into a 19th century corset for one novel, or spewed from the bowels of a werewolf for another, but it’s essentially the same underneath.  

When I realized after writing a couple of early novels, that I hadn’t found my voice—that there was even something called a voice—I was devastated.  

Had my years of labor all been for nothing? If my goal was to be published then yes. A total waste of time. But if my aim was to grow as an artist and as a person, then I had reason to be proud of myself.  

Anyway, to spare you the same kind of pain, I’ve devised an exercise that will hopefully lead you closer than you’ve ever been to the fiery core of your own, utterly unique, narrative style.  

1. Pick five books (or poems) you love, and five books (or poems) you dislike intensely, for a total of ten works.

2. Read the first page (or poem) several times, then rewrite it in such a way that you think, in your opinion, it’s better. Sometimes this means changing the order of words, or cutting them, or adding to them, or changing the tone completely. Don’t worry about offending anyone, no one knows you’re doing this except me, and I won’t tell.

3. This exercise, if done properly should take a fair amount of time. Once you’ve completed it, you’ll start to get a sense of who you are as a writer, and how your writing voice differs from the voices of others. Rewriting sections from writers you love is perhaps the most fruitful, because instead of emulating—you’re forced to be different. We each love certain writers for our own reasons. Rewriting their work will illuminate the subtle differences between your voice and theirs. 

4. Once you find your voice, it will almost certainly evolve over time, the way we evolve naturally as artists. Look at the early work of Van Gogh, compared to his later work. Dubliners vs. Finnegans Wake.  Early Beethoven sounds a little like Hayden—while late Beethoven is characteristic of the sound we associate with him. The core will always remain. Your voice is a gift to the world, so find it, nurture it, develop it, work it like a machine, give it the freedom of a vine—but above all, share it. 

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: Infinite Distance, or The Starry Archipelagoes

by

Dan Beachy-Quick

3.6.18

This is no. 28 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I remember being told a story when I was a student, though all these years later I wonder if it can be true. The course was in Modern Art History, and we were studying Bauhaus. My professor told us that on the first day of class, the Bauhaus teacher gave each one of his students a single sheet of paper. The assignment, he said, is to fold the paper in such a way that it can support the weight of your entire body. Some succeeded; some failed. But it is the assignment itself, the sudden and impossible challenge of it, that struck me—that one simple, blank page had to hold up the weight of your entire life. I then recognized something I’ve never recovered from, some true and awful thing about being a poet and a poet’s relationship, not to words or the beauties and meanings words offer, but to the blank space those words are written on, to the page: that one must learn to trust that its thin, near nothingness can bear the burden of a life. I realized that the poet has the simplest answer. You do not need to find the strongest method of folding, you do not need an intricate architecture of support; you just leave the page as it is and step onto the blankness.

Now I see that poetry intensifies the latent properties of the daily mundane into symbolic potency. The words on the chore list lend themselves to the desperate reverie of “Ode to a Nightingale.” A pencil makes its marks in the margins of the books I teach, and as the semester unspools day by day, and poem by poem, chapter by chapter, I sharpen the pencil and it grows shorter; I see this object of mere utility is also a mortal clock, and that the pencil’s beauty is a strange humility revealed in the seldom felt fact that it is, among all the objects I live my life among, one of the few that will disappear before I do. Walking to my Intro to Poetry course, I’ve come to realize—I hope, I fear—that the day’s lesson on some point of poetic craft is something other than what the definition in the Literary Dictionary holds, and is, instead, a complex consciousness, a vital form, a means of living a life. I know that sounds impossibly grand, but I think it’s true—that metaphor can be a philosophy, and metonymy a form of faith.

To help my students grasp such possibilities I ask them to take out a blank page of paper. The question is how to get from one corner to the opposite corner in the quickest way. The immediate reaction is to take a pencil and draw a straight line from corner to corner. But then some student figures it out and, leaving the pencil where its point stands, bends the opposite corner under its tip, letting the pencil ride across the distance without leaving a mark, for it has not “moved” at all. That is the discovery of metaphor. It helps us cross the distance we cannot imagine. And if it is as they say—those star-gazers, those physicists, those astronomers—that the earth isn’t the center of the universe, nor now is the sun, nor the Milky Way’s own black hole, but that all is in the red-shift, and flees from us in every direction at increasing speed into infinite distance, and between us and all we might love, as Emerson would have it, there is “an innavigable sea,” then metaphor becomes something other than the answer on the midterm, an implicit comparison between unlike things. It becomes a way to recognize the isolate nature of our condition, and a means of countering what otherwise could best be described as our cosmic loneliness. If the cost of the consciousness that language lends us is the inevitable sense of our separation from what it is we speak of, who it is we love, what it is we desire, then metaphor short-circuits that sad consequence and shuttles us—though we hardly feel the corner of the page slip under our feet—across the abyss of the universe. Is that hyperbole? Maybe. But sometimes the universe is just the living room. Sometimes the universe is nothing more than room A113 in Microbiology, where every Tuesday and Thursday from 12:30 to 1:45 I teach my class. That doesn’t mean the distance to cross is any less. If infinity has any lesson, it’s that every part of it is also infinite: chalkboard to student’s desk; word on a page to word in a mind. 

But that’s only one way to think, only one literary term, only metaphor. There are other terms to heap your faith inside. Like metonymy, that form of substitution of a name or attribute for something closely associated with it. Think of noble Queequeg in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Royal prince, the prophets of his tribe tattooed on his body the entire epistemology of his people; his body bore the signs and symbols that held the secrets of his tribe, prophecies and histories, facts and faith. It’s a beautiful image, the body as Holy Book—of course, Queequeg left his people before those prophets could teach him how to read what on his body was written. He was himself a book he could not open, illiterate to the answers he bore, outcast from the knowledge that marked him, unrecognizable to himself by the very marks that identified him. Queequeg gets very sick. He has the carpenter make him a coffin. Instead of resting in his hammock, Queequeg gets each day into his coffin, and looking at the symbols etched on his body, carves each one onto the wooden lid. Not knowing how to get to his people’s heaven, he trusts some divine spirit will be able to read those mystic marks on the coffin itself, and take him where he most wants to go, the starry archipelagoes. I know you’ve been told the earth is round; so have I, but sometimes I’m not so sure. Maybe Queequeg’s coffin would float out to the horizon, and there, where we assume one drops behind the curve of the earth to continue a ceaseless circumnavigation of the globe, the heavens reveal themselves as metonymic, and what seems like unbridgeable distance is actually not, but is continuous, contiguous, a near substitution for what once seemed impossibly far away, and the noble prince will find his way to heaven, not because his soul has been lifted there from the wreck of his body, but because that frigate-coffin has sailed all the way to the distant islands of those stars. Metonymy says that what seems apart is not apart at all, but is instead a part, as one tile is a part of the mosaic whole, and connected to the whole image of the world, though one can’t see the picture fully oneself.

Some other eyes can read it; some invisible hand can take you, too, to the starry archipelagoes.

 

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017).

Craft Capsule: Hundreds of Eyes

by

Dan Beachy-Quick

2.20.18

This is the twenty-sixth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I practice two arts—the poem and the essay—and I’m not good at keeping them apart. There are times, I admit, when poetry feels to me the primary vehicle of thinking, an epistemological experiment in consciousness itself, demonstrating line by line the way in which those wondrous wounds of the senses inform the mind, and the mind must work to find a word that fits—not recognition, but cognition. In this sense, the poem is the thinking that can happen only outside the mind, and the poet is one, so paradoxically, eavesdropping on her own innermost self (though the innermost is no longer exactly inner). It’s monstrous work. I mean it’s work akin to Mary Shelley’s monster fleeing through the woods and, bending over a puddle there, seeing the moon in reflection, hearing the wind in the branches, and seeing for the first time his own face. The poem’s thinking is fateful in just such fundamental ways: It does not recognize, it realizes.

And the essay, that mode of taking measure, that rational or reasonable weighing of a life, has become for me beauty’s own labyrinth. I suppose a maze is monstrous work, too—knowing those myths of the Minotaur. But sometimes I think the essay is a maze with no center at all; it is instead a bewildered initiation into what John Keats calls, in “Ode to Psyche,” the “untrodden region of my mind,” that place one finds only by getting lost.

Such wonderings have led me to think much on what I consider the most fundamental aspect of craft in each art: the line of the poem, the sentence of the essay. (One might argue the word is the fundamental aspect of both, and that might be true, but a word is a world of syllable and breath, of potency and chance, and carries, as Leibniz describes the monad, its complexity all within. I’m not sure I know how to think about words—a strange thing, I know, for a writer to admit.)

 

I. Lines

Ralph Waldo Emerson, though I can’t remember where, wrote down a thought I’ve never been able to shake loose: “Every line of a poem must be a poem.” I find this to be awful advice, by which I mean, advice that is full of awe—awful because it is so true. I apologize to my students when I repeat it them. I fear it could so burden every moment in a poem that the poet feels paralyzed, unable to forge any path into the wild blank of the page. But maybe that is just how it should feel, just that helpless, but a helplessness mined through with some urge to make in nothingness a world entire, a poem.

Emerson’s insight has unfolded in a number of ways in my thinking about poetry. If every line of a poem is a poem itself it must mean that every single line in a poem truly written contains within it all it can say, has exhausted somehow the resource of its perception until, by the last word, there is some silence that cannot be spoken past. It means each line of the poem possesses a knowledge and vision that is, in its way, wholly revelatory—a means by which to see the world anew, a way to grow a new set of eyes. Each line is a plank upon which the mind builds its whole edifice of reason—and for the length of the line, it holds.

But then, as Emily Dickinson offers it,

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

That last stanza of her great poem “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” reads to me as the lived experience of reading a poem—that plunge through every line that is itself a world entire. And of the “Finished knowing—then—,” I’ve never known if it means she has ended in knowledge, or if knowing itself is at an end.

I suppose the answer may be both, for it reveals the most astonishing aspect of the line when every line is itself a poem: that each line of a poem makes a claim for some sense of the world entire, a sense of which that line is the primary example, and then that singular sense is subsumed into the larger vision of which it is but a part. Then the poem may be the place Emerson suggests it is, where we “stand before the secret of the world, there where Being passes into Appearance and Unity into Variety.” I imagine the poem also this way: a peacock with tail outspread, and the phosphorescent circle on each feather an actual eye. The poem lets us see through every eye. Then it is, as Wallace Stevens has it, that art in which “hundreds of eyes, in one mind, see at once.”

 

II. Sentences

Emerson’s own essays are exemplary of the next suggestion, an extension of his poetic insight: Every sentence of an essay must be an essay. It might be worth going further, and to alter Stevens’s lovely line, to make the essay that art in which “hundreds of minds, in one eye, think at once.” The bond between logos and logic that seems to drive the sentence through its argument to essay’s conclusion may be a more tenuous thread than one cares to admit. Keats knows this, as over and again he examines the fraught relationship between beauty and thought, summed up nowhere more succinctly than at the end of his letter, written in 1817, to his brothers, in which he defines negative capability. There he concludes: “This pursed through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” This obliteration of thought by beauty is something I’ve long pondered, but even more so as my own writing practice has turned to essays of lyric literary reverie and investigation. If Dickinson is right, and I think she is, that “This World is not Conclusion,” then the beautiful sentence might work to frustrate the considered logic of the essay’s larger aims, if not to obliterate them completely. I can imagine the mind as a knot trying to untie itself from within its own complexity, and though it may look from outside as if nothing’s changed, what’s inside has loosened its intricate ravel; I can see the sentences in an essay acting in just the same way.

Sometimes craft isn’t advice or technique, but simply a suggestion—a way of thinking, a method of approach. That is, craft can be revelatory of condition. When it is so, a poem teaches us what it is to think, and an essay teaches us what it is to see. We thought we’d entered into different lessons entirely when we picked up the book we’re reading, but when we put it down—whether it is essay or poem—we find both mind and eye opened. Not that it’s easy, in the end, to tell the two apart. 

 

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017).

Craft Capsule: The Craft of Humility, the Craft of Love

by

Dan Beachy-Quick

2.13.18

This is the twenty-fifth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I’m teaching a class called Introduction to Poetry; I’ve taught it many times before. On day one, knowing many students are there not wholly willingly (a requirement, for many, for better or worse) I make the same tired joke: “Class, this is Poetry. Poetry, this is the class. I hope you’ll both be friends.” A few laugh.

But I mean it, that joke. I feel my job as a poet is to bring them into poetry in such a way that its difficulty becomes the means of admitting to and encountering their own complex lives, of finding in those nearly unspeakable reaches of mind or heart some companionship they did not hope to have—like a good friend offers. I hope the same for those easier pleasures in life—the sun-bright leaf, the bee in the bud, a rose—that a poem might offer itself to bear within it the sweet moment’s memory that otherwise might drift away into oblivion.

For those hopes to come true, the students need to learn how a poem works; inevitably, much of our delving into any particular poem requires an investigation into craft. I take something Ludwig Wittgenstein says about the nature of philosophy, and alter it toward poetic ends. I suggest that our condition is to find ourselves at sea on a craft that leaks and must be repaired as we float in it—that craft is our craft, the very thing that keeps the poem from sinking, and us along with it. For the honest poem, craft isn’t some willful choice of form, or any set of decisions binding the freedom of the poem to particular tropes; rather, craft is the helpless acceptance of what work is needed to keep the poem intact despite the extremity of its position—hovering there on the white abyss of the blank page, silence all around it, and you, riding in the thing you’re writing.

It is in such light that I want to offer the two most significant introductions to poetry and its craft that happened in my younger, proto-poet life. They are aspects of craft not typically thought of as craft at all, and yet, they opened me to poetry in ways I’ve yet to recover from—which is to say, I’m happy to still be here, fixing a leak while crossing the ocean.

 

I. The Craft of Humility

I thought myself a smart kid in high school, already something of a poet, dumb-drunk on some sense of my own “giftedness,” and out to prove it. I had the remarkable fortune then of having a teacher, Ms. Porter, who loved poetry and, just as important, could teach it. She broke the class into groups, and gave each group one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. My group was given number 173: “That time of year thou mays’t in me behold.” I lorded over the conversation, built some reading I cowed others into accepting, and when we presented to the class, of course, I was the one doing the speaking. I don’t remember—thank goodness—anything I said, or how it was I thought I saw that poem. What I do remember is the look on my teacher’s face—a teacher I loved. It wasn’t just disappointment, but a kind of anger. And I remember what she said, very loud, in front of everyone: That I had gotten the poem so wrong, I might as well have not read it.

I sat down and felt ashamed. That shame, the deep and burning sense of it, was my first true lesson in poetry. I realized that I’m not smarter than the poem I read, far from it; and that if I wanted, as I professed I did, to become a poet myself, then first I had to humble myself enough to know that I didn’t know much. I had to admit to myself my own insufficiency, that I needed a teacher to learn from, and the poem was both instructor and lesson itself.

Only years later did the true beauty of that poem find me: the bare ruined choir of those branches that, as the winter night darkens early with cold, become the fuel for the fire, those embers glowing and “consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.” Then I finally learned my lesson in craft, years after the hour in the classroom closed: that the poem is its own deepest resource, and the image it bears in the first lines, taken with all the literalness the imagination can muster, become the means of admitting to and countering crisis. For example: It is cold and dark and I’m getting old; but there’s a tree, and a fire, and a home. Even so late, the sweet birds sing.

 

II. The Craft of Love

Two years later, I had the same Ms. Porter again.

I had in the intervening years started reading and writing poems in earnest, and had started seeing a young woman, Kristy Beachy, who—. Well, who was everything to me.

We were reading John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Humbled enough now to admit the poem made little sense to me, I was curious to see how Ms. Porter would teach it.

Stanza by stanza she led us through the metaphors, those metaphysical conceits, of lovers parting for untold time. Midway through those nine quatrains, which move from death to storm to the quaking of the planetary spheres, their gentle insistence that absence is no true remove, Donne admits to the kind of humility I’d come to recognize:

But we by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less eyes, lips, hands to miss.

Right there, at the very crux of a poem whose gentle fury of intellect seemed to cast it past my grasp, was the admission of not knowing exactly what is this thing one is in—this life, this love. I don’t know, those abashed, holy words, uttered in the very crucible of needing to know, that in their honest urgency, admit no defeat, but instead open the mind to its next vision.

That vision, Ms. Porter showed us, that “gold to airy thinness beat” of two souls that are one, depended upon gold beaten down to the micron of its leaf while remaining absolutely whole. But if these twin souls are two—and here, Ms. Porter pulled out her compass, familiar to us all from Geometry class—and demonstrated those last, astonishing lines:

If they be two, they are two so 
As stiff twin compasses are two; 
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show 
To move, but doth, if the other do. 

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must, 
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just, 
And makes me end where I begun.

Then she held the paper up on which she’d drawn her perfect circle. I don’t know if I gasped. I might have. For I’d learned my other earliest lesson in craft: that metaphor in poetry isn’t difficult because of its abstraction, but because of its accuracy. And I thought I’d learned something of that sense of accuracy, those feelings so poignant in their utmost singularity that they verge on the unspeakable: There was Kristy Beachy, sitting one row over and two seats ahead of me, and I was Dan Quick, mind-struck behind her, deeply, deeply, in love—with Kristy, of course, and with poetry. Not that it’s so easy to tell such matters of craft apart.

 

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017).

Craft Capsule: Left Brain, Right Brain

by

Sandra Beasley

4.25.17

This is the tenth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

 

***

I attended a high school geared toward professions in science or technology, so I have an active analytical streak and crave objective rubrics for understanding the wildly creative poems, stories, and essays that I read. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

One of my mentors, Gregory Orr, articulated four “temperaments” of poetry in a 1988 essay titled “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry.” You can envision these facets of craft as quadrants, positioned on an X-Y axis. To the left, limiting impulses: “Story” in the upper quadrant and, below it, “Structure.” To the right, impulses that extend limitlessness: “Music” in the upper and, below it, “Imagination.” Though designed for poetry, I find these temperaments useful for prose as well. As writers, we each typically favor two of the four in our work. Which temperaments bring you to the page? Which come easiest to you? Which do you need to consciously strengthen in your work?

This system gives us a way to articulate differences in aesthetic without ranking them. I’m relieved to set aside presumptive hierarchies. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: The Art of Targeted Revision

by

Sandra Beasley

4.18.17

This is the ninth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each Tuesday for a new Craft Capsule.

***

“Too many hours of revising—to no clear end!” my student complains. He is tired. He feels like the poem never really gets better. There’s always more work to do.

Welcome to revision: the arbitrary realm in which we debate “the” versus “an,” “this” versus “that.” Spend an hour putting a comma in. An hour later, take it out.

Part of the problem is that we complicate the revision process by making our aims abstract. One big revision, we promise ourselves, will make the poem “better.” Don’t privilege “better,” which is a meaningless term. Assign clear and objective tasks. Devote one round of revision exclusively to heightening your imagery, another to reconsidering your verb choices, a third to playing with lineation or tense.

Think of each revision as an experiment. Often these experiments will feel like evolutionary progress, and you’ll keep their results intact. Not always, especially as you near the end of the revision process. When the new version fails to appeal—when you find yourself resisting, reverting, defending an earlier choice—you are locating the poem’s true form. You are identifying what makes this poem yours, and yours alone.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: The Scourge of Technology

by

Tayari Jones

1.23.18

This is the twenty-second in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

The cell phone is the worst thing to ever happen to literature. Seriously. So many great fictional plots hinge on one detail: The characters can’t connect. Most famous is Romeo and Juliet. If she just could have texted him, “R, I might look dead, but I’m not. Lolz,” then none of this would have happened.

In my new novel, An American Marriage, both e-mail and cell phones threatened my plot. Here is a basic overview: A young couple, Celestial and Roy, married only eighteen months, are torn apart when the husband is wrongfully incarcerated and given a twelve-year prison sentence. After five years, he is released and wants to resume his old life with her.

A good chunk of the novel is correspondence between our separated lovers. In real life, they probably would have used e-mail. But the problem, plot-wise, is that e-mail is so off-the-cuff, and there is so little time between messages. I needed to use old-fashioned letters. Their messages needed to be deep and thoughtful, and I wanted them to have some time to stew between missives. But who in their right mind (besides me) uses paper and pen when e-mail is so much faster and easier?

The fix was that Roy uses his allocated computer time in prison to write e-mail for the other inmates, for pay. As he says, “It’s a little cottage industry.” He also explains that he likes to write letters to his wife at night when no one is looking over his shoulder or rushing him. 

So look how this fix worked: You see that even though he is incarcerated, his is still a man with a plan. The challenge was to figure out how to avoid e-mail in such a way that it didn’t read like I was just trying to come up with an excuse to write a Victorian-style epistolary novel.

The cell phone was harder to navigate. Spoiler: Celestial has taken up with another man, Andre, in the five years that her husband is incarcerated. A crucial plot point, which I will not spoil, involves Andre not being able get in touch with her. Well, in the present day there is no way to not be able to reach your bae, unless your bae doesn’t want to be reached. Trouble in paradise is not on the menu for the couple at this point, so what to do? I couldn’t very well have him drop his phone in a rest-stop commode!

To get around it, I had to put Andre in a situation in which he would agree not to call Celestial or take her calls—although he really wants to. Trust me. It’s killing him. But he makes an agreement with Roy’s father, who says, “Andre, you have had two years to let Celestial know how you feel.  Give my son one day.” Andre agrees and has to rely on faith that their relationship can survive. The scene is extremely tense and adds suspense to the novel. I had to get up and walk around while I wrote it.

I predict that future novelists will not grapple with this quite as much as we do, as technological advances will be seen as a feature rather than a bug. But for now, you can still write an old-fashioned plot that doesn’t involve texting or tweeting—you just have to figure out a work-around that enhances the plot and understanding of your characters.

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.

 

 

 

Craft Capsule: Finding Your Story

by

Tayari Jones

1.16.18

This is the twenty-first in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Like most thoughtful people, I have noticed that the world is on fire and I want to use my skills to help extinguish the flames. To this end, I set out five years ago to write a novel that addresses the injustice of wrongful incarceration. I applied for and received a fellowship to the Radcliffe Institute and I became a dedicated researcher. I learned a lot, so much so that I got angry just watching Law & Order, my ex-favorite television show. I was informed, “woke,” and motivated, but I couldn’t write a novel because I had no story. The problem was that I was trying to write to the issue, and I can only write a story that is issue-adjacent.

I know I have a novel when I have a question to which I don’t know the moral/ethical answer. When it comes to wrongful incarceration, I am not torn. The state should not imprison innocent people. Full stop. Also without ambiguity: The prison system is cruel, corrupt, and in desperate need of reform, if not abolition.

So where was the novel?

The answer revealed itself in a food court where I spied a young couple. She was dressed in a lovely cashmere coat. He wore inexpensive khakis and a polo. They were clearly angry, and clearly in love. I overheard the woman say, “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.” He shot back, “What are you talking about? This shit wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.”

Just then, I knew I had a novel. The reason is that I understood that they were both probably right. I didn’t know him, but I couldn’t quite picture him waiting chastely by for seven years. At the same time, I couldn’t imagine her behind bars. But did he have a right to demand her loyalty when both seem to agree she would be in no position to demand the same? Was this question moot since she would not likely face this challenge? Was this a kind of privilege? Could she mitigate this privilege by waiting like a modern-day Penelope? Should she?

So we have a couple with a conflict, and at stake between them are issues of reciprocity, duty, and love. Yes, there is the injustice of mass incarceration. And yes, this injustice is fueled by racism and prejudice. Neither of them doubt this, and neither do I. But the question of “will you wait for me” is foremost on his mind.

The result is my new novel, An American Marriage. Roy and Celestial are newlyweds, married only eighteen months, when Roy is arrested for a crime he did not commit. When he is slapped with a twelve-year sentence, the questions of desire and responsibility are at the center of the characters’ lives. As a writer, I was genuinely torn: Roy needs Celestial to be a link to the life he left behind, and Celestial loves her husband, but she has only one life. I wrote this novel not only to satisfy my heart’s curiosity as to what they would do, but to also satisfy the part of my mind that wondered what should they do.

I realized that my passion for the issue of incarceration was the reason that I couldn’t write about it directly. A novel is not me, as a writer, telling the reader what I already know. And an honest novel is not about me pretending to take on “both sides” of an issue about which I have a clear opinion. I had to start with my issue and then walk away from it until I found the thing I didn’t know. To truly challenge the reader, I had to challenge myself as well.

 

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.

 

Craft Capsule: Gin and Scotch Tape

by

Sandra Beasley

5.2.17

This is the eleventh in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Years ago a distinguished poet hosted our class’s workshops at her home in Virginia. The house was perched on an incline; down the hill was her writing cabin alongside a pond. We met at her dining room table and tried not to be distracted by the hawks swooping outside the windows.

A student brought in a draft that compared the scent of gin to Scotch tape. Setting aside all other matters of theme or craft, the discussion lingered on this comparison. The simile was bright and original. But was it accurate? That only a few in the room had ever sampled gin, and even then only of an aristrocrat variety, did not aid our analysis.

Reaching her limit, the professor sprang up from the table. “We’re settling this,” she said. She walked into the kitchen and retrieved a roll of Scotch tape. She went to a corner of the dining room, opened a cabinet, and pulled out a bottle. She walked the gin around the table so we could sniff accordingly.

Lesson one? To compare the scents of Scotch tape and gin doesn’t quite work, because the former obscures the latter’s floral qualities.

Lesson two? Always be prepared to have your simile put to the test.

Lesson three? Never let a turn of figurative language, no matter how vivid or clever, hijack what you’re trying to say. I can’t remember who wrote that poem, or where its heart lay. I only remember the gin and Scotch tape. 

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: Real Time vs. Page Time

by

Wiley Cash

9.26.17

This is the twentieth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Several years ago I worked with a student who was writing a novel about a guy training for a career in the sport of mixed martial arts. The novel was exciting and interesting, and the writing was strong and compelling. Until the fighting began. The minute the bell rang and the fists and feet started flying, the pace of the narrative turned glacial.

This may come as a surprise to you; it certainly surprised me. The talented author was actually a former MMA fighter, so it seemed impossible that he was unable to write an exciting fight scene. Then I realized that fight scenes are rarely exciting on the page. I believe this is true for two reasons. First, a fistfight is a process, and processes rarely make for compelling reading. Second, fistfights are exciting because they unfold in real time, which is wholly different than page time.

I want to talk about process first. Process is part of our daily lives, and many of the processes we undertake are performed through rote memory: brushing our teeth, making coffee, pouring cereal. These processes aren’t very interesting, and they don’t really need to be written about in detail. Readers may need to know that your characters drink coffee, eat cereal, and brush their teeth, but they don’t need to see this happening. Telling them it happened is enough. This is an example of when telling should be privileged over showing. But sometimes you may want to show a process, especially if it proves a level of expertise. Perhaps you’re writing about a character who is skilled with firearms, and you want to show that level of knowledge and skill. Perhaps you should have a scene in which the character goes through the process of breaking down and cleaning a firearm.

Most often, when readers start down the road of reading about process they’re not interested in the process itself; they’re interested in the outcome. The fight scenes in my student’s mixed martial arts novel are a good example. While the scenes were very technical and showed the same level of skill and mastery that I just mentioned, as a reader I quickly became bogged down in the descriptions of the movements, and I lost a sense of the movements themselves. I found myself skipping through the process of the fight in order to discover whether or not our hero won the fight. I realized that as a reader I was more interested in the outcome than I was in the process. The scene hinged on the result of the fight as an event, not on the act of fighting.

Not only were the fight scenes weighed down by process, they were also slowed down by the act of reading. Let’s step out of the ring. Think about the fights or dustups or schoolyard shoving matches you’ve witnessed. How long did they last before someone stepped in or called the parents or the teachers came running? Thirty seconds? A minute? A few minutes, tops? These events almost always unfold very quickly. The movements are fast; words are exchanged at a rapid clip. Your eyes and ears are able to take in the movements and the verbal exchanges simultaneously. Now, imagine trying to portray these events verbatim on the page. Think about how many words would be required to nail down both the movements and the dialogue. It would take much longer to read that scene than it would to witness it.

There’s an old writerly saying that dialogue isn’t speech, but rather an approximation of speech. Sometimes, this is true of action, especially in terms of process. 

 

Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Last BalladA Land More Kind Than Home, and This Dark Road to Mercy. He currently serves as the writer in residence at the University of North Carolina in Asheville and teaches in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA program. He lives with his wife and two young daughters in Wilmington, North Carolina. His website is www.wileycash.com.

Craft Capsule: The Art of Active Dialogue

by

Wiley Cash

9.12.17

This is the nineteenth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

When I work with new writers, one thing I often notice is their lack of faith in their dialogue: They don’t trust that it’s strong enough to stand on its own. They feel that they must add something to really get the point across. These writers add action words to their dialogue tags in an attempt to hide any flaws they fear may be hiding in their characters’ verbal interactions. In other words, they do everything they can to make certain that the reader gets the full import of what the characters are attempting, consciously or unconsciously, to communicate.

Often, and unfortunately, these action words take the form of gerunds. Let me follow this with a caveat: Gerunds in dialogue tags are not always a bad thing if they’re used purposefully and sparingly. I use them. Other writers I admire use them. But if I’ve used a gerund in a dialogue tag then I can defend it because I’ve already spent a good deal of time trying to consider whether or not to use it.

The gerunds in dialogue tags that bother me are the ones that are clearly there to underpin weakness in the dialogue. This happens when writers feel they need an action to complement a line of dialogue. Here’s an example:

“What do you mean?” he asked, shrugging his shoulders.

Let’s add an adverb and make that gerund really awful.

“What do you mean?” he asked, shrugging his shoulders nervously.

The writer (in this case, me) felt the need to add that gerund (and perhaps the adjective as well) because the dialogue itself was pretty weak. “What do you mean?” is a boring question. Anyone can ask this, but your character can’t just be anyone. He has to be a particular person with particular turns of phrase and particular movements (what are often called “beats” in dialogue) to flesh out what he means.

Let’s give it another try, and this time let’s write a better line of dialogue that essentially says the same thing as our original, just more clearly.

“What am I supposed to say to that?” He shrugged his shoulders. “What does that even mean?”

I tinkered a little with the original line and split it into two, but I divided the two lines with the beat of action. I feel like my two lines are pretty strong, and they seem particular to this person, whoever he is. Because my dialogue is strong, it doesn’t need the support of action. So my action can stand alone.

The action also does something the dialogue cannot do. It illustrates visually what the dialogue means verbally. The phrase “What am I supposed to say to that?” is a phrase of exasperation, so the action takes this a step further and shows exasperation. The follow-up question of “What does that even mean?” amplifies both the original question and the action.

If I had kept the gerund shrugging it would have combined the dialogue and the action, which crowds the reader’s mind in asking her or him to do two things at once: see and hear. Let’s focus on asking one thing of our reader at a time. The act of reading is not the act of movie watching, which often requires viewers both to see and hear at the same time. Literature and film cannot do the same things in the same ways.

The gerund shrugging is also a weak action word because it does not have a clearly demarcated time of beginning. How long has this guy been shrugging? After all, we enter the word “shrugging,” and presumably the dialogue, as the shrugging is already under way. On the other hand, when we read the line “He shrugged his shoulders” we are entering the action at the moment it begins. It has not been unfold-ing since an indeterminate moment in time. The action feels particular, as if it is caused by the line of dialogue that precedes it. It gives us a chance both to digest the dialogue and imagine the action. It does not ask us to do both at the same time with the confusion of wondering when the shrugging actually began. This is deliberate writing. We should all be deliberate writers.

I want to close with a few lines of dialogue from my upcoming novel, The Last Ballad. In this scene, a man has just come up a riverbank and met a small boy standing at a crossroad. The boy is staring down into a ditch where his injured dog is lying. The man asks the boy where they are.

The boy lifted his eyes from the ditch and looked around as if getting his bearings.

“Gaston,” the boy finally said.

“Gaston,” he repeated. He looked down at the boy. “Do you mean Gaston County?”

The boy shrugged.

“Mama just says ‘Gaston’ when she says ‘here.’”

I worked really hard on this scene. I wanted it to communicate an edge of laconic strangeness. The boy’s poverty has rendered him a bit provincial. The man’s travels have rendered him a bit wistful. I purposefully separated the actions from the lines of dialogue and cordoned them off in their own sentences.

But what if I’d used gerunds?

“Gaston,” the boy finally said, lifting his eyes from the ditch and looking around as if getting his bearings.

“Gaston,” he repeated, looking down at the boy. “Do you mean Gaston County?”

“Mama just says ‘Gaston’ when she says ‘here,’” the boy said, shrugging.

Written this way, the scene unfolds too quickly. The boy gives his answer about their location before getting his bearings. The man’s quizzical repetition of the word “Gaston” is marred by his deliberate action of looking down at the boy. The words and the actions do not go together. They must be separated and addresses and experienced on their own terms.

My advice is this: Trust your dialogue. If you don’t, make it stronger. Then, once your dialogue is strong, bring in action beats that amplify the speaker’s message, not messy gerunds that clutter it.

 

Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Last BalladA Land More Kind Than Home, and This Dark Road to Mercy. He currently serves as the writer in residence at the University of North Carolina in Asheville and teaches in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA program. He lives with his wife and two young daughters in Wilmington, North Carolina. His website is www.wileycash.com.

 

Craft Capsule: Rhyme and the Delay in Time

by

Dan Beachy-Quick

2.27.18

This is no. 27 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

It snowed last night. Not much. Just an inch or two. But this morning there’s a strange fog in the air. It isn’t like a spring fog, thick in the vision, obscuring the trees and houses across the small field. It must be frozen crystals in the air, some breath the dormant grass gathered and sighed out, or the wedding dress a cloud took off and let drop down to the ground—a dress that is no more than texture in the air. It faintly glows, like it’s holding light inside of it, like it’s slowing light down. It’s morning when I get to see what it is to see.

I’d also like to hear what it is to hear, to listen in on listening.

Over the course of many years of working on the page as best I could, reading wherever it was bliss took me, writing to catch up to those glimmers other poems taught me to see by, I began to distrust that divide I grew up being schooled in: tradition vs. experiment, conservative or “quiet” poetry vs. the avant-garde. Reading George Herbert, John Donne, and John Keats; reading Emily Dickinson, Sappho, and Gerard Manley Hopkins; reading Homer, Virgil, and the Greek pastoral traditions; reading anonymous poems for graves and for fields—all made me think that tradition might root itself down in the very humus of experiment. And, as humus and human are cognate, I began to suspect that the age-old tropes by which poetry functions—image, metaphor, metonymy, symbol; line, meter, music, rhyme—radically include us in that tradition of experiment that poetry might be described as. Trope, after all, comes from the Greek tropos, and means a turn, direction, a course, a way; but it also means the character of a person, the peculiar temper that makes one who one is; it also means the way the strong wind might move through a pine tree; it also means the way a winter morning’s fog might pause even the speed of light. I mean to suggest a simple thing, though I’ve learned the simple is often bewilderment’s own maze, that the tropes by which a poem moves through itself are not the musty pedantries of literary dictionaries, but are themselves fundamental forms of consciousness, the very means by which a poem comes to know itself, and by extension, the very means by which we come to know ourselves as well. The trope can wake us in the way the eye open wakes us—suddenly, there is light, and the first step of the day is into vision: an image. Or, take rhyme: Rhyme can make of the mind a wind-chime. 

I have no verifiable proof, just a sense from twenty years of teaching, more of reading and writing, that rhyme has become one of those aspects of tradition most easily derided. I can understand how it happened. Teaching now a lower-level poetry-writing workshop, I notice how often the weakest poems are strongest in rhyme, and the first advice, to not let the end sound of the line drive everything the line must do, inevitably makes the poem better. One of the unintended consequences of the workshop model may well be a drift away from the power of traditional tropes. The pressure put upon a single poem to achieve itself most successfully diminishes the larger work of thinking about what the work of poetry is—a work that requires the very failures, poem by poem, that necessitate thinking across the entire span of one’s efforts. The push, or the desire, to be “original,” to have a “voice,” to “make it new,” might deafen us to the latent, collective, anonymous consciousness that resides in something as simple-seeming as rhyme. There is something in rhyme—I think I can hear it, though it’s hard to describe—that speaks to the ongoing crisis of the human condition from the dawn of mind to now. It’s like an echo. But unlike that echo in stairwell or tunnel, in cave or gorge, it doesn’t get quieter as it moves through time. In rhyme, the echo gets louder.

So it is I often rhyme my poems, though it might not be obvious. I’ve come to trust there’s something in the ear’s own intelligence that leaps ahead of the conscious, analytic mind in a poem that rhymes, as if the hidden promise of a chiming sound sets forth in the poem a fate-like assurance that what is to come, though yet unseen, will welcome you. So quietly, but so familiarly, rhyme suggests that to move forward, as one must, into what one doesn’t know, will be okay. If so, rhyme offers itself as some form of existential assurance, is tuned in, and so attunes us, to fears and hopes so entwined with the human condition, we forget we even need to speak of them: that in what feels to be the chaos of the blank future, there is a cosmos, an order, into which we’ll fit. It is not exactly a means of survival, but a trust one will survive.

Rhyme also works within and against time. I can imagine in a poem heavily end-rhymed—say a Petrarchan sonnet with its octave of ABBAABBA, or Dante’s lovely, enveloping terza rima of ABA BCB CDC—that the surety of those sounds counters the awful, inevitable flow of mortal life in one direction. Then the poem that makes its claims about love’s immortality, or memory’s eternity, is no cloying euphemism, but an enacted audacity in the poem’s very fiber. That rhyme works as does mythic time, returning us ever again to a point we’ve never truly left—the day that is all one day, world’s onset, the syllable now, sun’s instant of light—even as, line by line, we recognize too that we do not get to remain in that golden light of origin. We can hear in the poem that mythic life of eternal return, and in hearing it, live within it, even as the poem accompanies us in that other recognition, that line by line we move to what end is ours. Rhyme puts a delay in time. It makes us understand what otherwise would feel an impossible paradox: that we live in time, and time doesn’t exist. And though I’m not exactly a religious man, it gives me one version of how heaven could work. It’s just a poem, just a rhyme, a single-syllable that, scanned, has no stress and rhymes AAAAAAAA…forever.

 

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017).           

Craft Capsule: The Craft of Humility, the Craft of Love

by

Dan Beachy-Quick

2.13.18

This is the twenty-fifth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I’m teaching a class called Introduction to Poetry; I’ve taught it many times before. On day one, knowing many students are there not wholly willingly (a requirement, for many, for better or worse) I make the same tired joke: “Class, this is Poetry. Poetry, this is the class. I hope you’ll both be friends.” A few laugh.

But I mean it, that joke. I feel my job as a poet is to bring them into poetry in such a way that its difficulty becomes the means of admitting to and encountering their own complex lives, of finding in those nearly unspeakable reaches of mind or heart some companionship they did not hope to have—like a good friend offers. I hope the same for those easier pleasures in life—the sun-bright leaf, the bee in the bud, a rose—that a poem might offer itself to bear within it the sweet moment’s memory that otherwise might drift away into oblivion.

For those hopes to come true, the students need to learn how a poem works; inevitably, much of our delving into any particular poem requires an investigation into craft. I take something Ludwig Wittgenstein says about the nature of philosophy, and alter it toward poetic ends. I suggest that our condition is to find ourselves at sea on a craft that leaks and must be repaired as we float in it—that craft is our craft, the very thing that keeps the poem from sinking, and us along with it. For the honest poem, craft isn’t some willful choice of form, or any set of decisions binding the freedom of the poem to particular tropes; rather, craft is the helpless acceptance of what work is needed to keep the poem intact despite the extremity of its position—hovering there on the white abyss of the blank page, silence all around it, and you, riding in the thing you’re writing.

It is in such light that I want to offer the two most significant introductions to poetry and its craft that happened in my younger, proto-poet life. They are aspects of craft not typically thought of as craft at all, and yet, they opened me to poetry in ways I’ve yet to recover from—which is to say, I’m happy to still be here, fixing a leak while crossing the ocean.

 

I. The Craft of Humility

I thought myself a smart kid in high school, already something of a poet, dumb-drunk on some sense of my own “giftedness,” and out to prove it. I had the remarkable fortune then of having a teacher, Ms. Porter, who loved poetry and, just as important, could teach it. She broke the class into groups, and gave each group one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. My group was given number 173: “That time of year thou mays’t in me behold.” I lorded over the conversation, built some reading I cowed others into accepting, and when we presented to the class, of course, I was the one doing the speaking. I don’t remember—thank goodness—anything I said, or how it was I thought I saw that poem. What I do remember is the look on my teacher’s face—a teacher I loved. It wasn’t just disappointment, but a kind of anger. And I remember what she said, very loud, in front of everyone: That I had gotten the poem so wrong, I might as well have not read it.

I sat down and felt ashamed. That shame, the deep and burning sense of it, was my first true lesson in poetry. I realized that I’m not smarter than the poem I read, far from it; and that if I wanted, as I professed I did, to become a poet myself, then first I had to humble myself enough to know that I didn’t know much. I had to admit to myself my own insufficiency, that I needed a teacher to learn from, and the poem was both instructor and lesson itself.

Only years later did the true beauty of that poem find me: the bare ruined choir of those branches that, as the winter night darkens early with cold, become the fuel for the fire, those embers glowing and “consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.” Then I finally learned my lesson in craft, years after the hour in the classroom closed: that the poem is its own deepest resource, and the image it bears in the first lines, taken with all the literalness the imagination can muster, become the means of admitting to and countering crisis. For example: It is cold and dark and I’m getting old; but there’s a tree, and a fire, and a home. Even so late, the sweet birds sing.

 

II. The Craft of Love

Two years later, I had the same Ms. Porter again.

I had in the intervening years started reading and writing poems in earnest, and had started seeing a young woman, Kristy Beachy, who—. Well, who was everything to me.

We were reading John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Humbled enough now to admit the poem made little sense to me, I was curious to see how Ms. Porter would teach it.

Stanza by stanza she led us through the metaphors, those metaphysical conceits, of lovers parting for untold time. Midway through those nine quatrains, which move from death to storm to the quaking of the planetary spheres, their gentle insistence that absence is no true remove, Donne admits to the kind of humility I’d come to recognize:

But we by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less eyes, lips, hands to miss.

Right there, at the very crux of a poem whose gentle fury of intellect seemed to cast it past my grasp, was the admission of not knowing exactly what is this thing one is in—this life, this love. I don’t know, those abashed, holy words, uttered in the very crucible of needing to know, that in their honest urgency, admit no defeat, but instead open the mind to its next vision.

That vision, Ms. Porter showed us, that “gold to airy thinness beat” of two souls that are one, depended upon gold beaten down to the micron of its leaf while remaining absolutely whole. But if these twin souls are two—and here, Ms. Porter pulled out her compass, familiar to us all from Geometry class—and demonstrated those last, astonishing lines:

If they be two, they are two so 
As stiff twin compasses are two; 
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show 
To move, but doth, if the other do. 

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must, 
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just, 
And makes me end where I begun.

Then she held the paper up on which she’d drawn her perfect circle. I don’t know if I gasped. I might have. For I’d learned my other earliest lesson in craft: that metaphor in poetry isn’t difficult because of its abstraction, but because of its accuracy. And I thought I’d learned something of that sense of accuracy, those feelings so poignant in their utmost singularity that they verge on the unspeakable: There was Kristy Beachy, sitting one row over and two seats ahead of me, and I was Dan Quick, mind-struck behind her, deeply, deeply, in love—with Kristy, of course, and with poetry. Not that it’s so easy to tell such matters of craft apart.

 

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017).

Craft Capsule: Every Novel Is a Journey

by

Tayari Jones

2.6.18

This is the twenty-fourth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Last week I wrote about how I came to make Roy the protagonist of my new novel, An American Marriage. The decision was frustrating because I came to this tale seeking to amplify the muffled voices of women who live on the margins of the crisis of mass incarceration. So imagine how hard it was for me to make the Roy’s story the main color of the take and relegate Celestial’s point of view to a mere accent wall. It nearly killed me. I was prepared to pull the novel from publication.

Luckily, I had a craft epiphany.

Roy is a great character. He’s like Odysseus, a brave and charismatic man returned home from a might battle. He just wants to get home and be taken care of by a loving wife and sheltered in a gracious house. His voice was very easy to write because he is easy to like; his desires and decisions make it easy to empathize with him. He is a wrongfully incarcerated black man. What decent person wouldn’t root for him?

Celestial was bit more challenging. She’s ambitious. She’s kind of stubborn. And most important, she isn’t really cut out to be a dutiful wife. Back when she was the protagonist of the novel, I used to say, “I am writing a novel about a woman whose husband is wrongfully incarcerated…” and everyone would expect the novel to be about her fight to free him. And it wasn’t. It was about her decision not to wait.

On the level of craft, it just didn’t work. For one thing, you can’t write a compelling novel about what someone doesn’t do. (There is a reason why Bartelby doesn’t get to narrate his own story.) Second, as I wrote last week, Roy’s crisis is just too intense and distracting for the reader to care about any other character as much.

So, what to do?

I foregrounded Roy. He is the protagonist and readers find him to be very “relatable” (my very least favorite word in the world). I took Roy on the journey, and I invite readers to accompany him. As the writer, I came to the table understanding that the expectations put on women to be “ride or die” are completely unreasonable; furthermore, there is no expectation of reciprocity.  But rather than use Celestial’s voice to amplify my position, I allowed Roy the hard work of interrogating his world view, and the reader, by proxy, must do the same.

The result is a novel that was a lot harder to write, but the questions I posed to myself and my readers were richer, more complex, and I hope, more satisfying.

 

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.

Craft Capsule: Finding the Center

by

Tayari Jones

1.30.18

This is the twenty-third in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

My new novel, An American Marriage, involves a husband and wife with an unusual challenge: Eighteen months after exchanging their vows, he is arrested and incarcerated for a crime he does not commit.

I was equally interested in both their stories, but for some reason early readers of the manuscript were way more interested in him (Roy) than her (Celestial.) At first, I was convinced that this was sexism, plain and simple. Men’s stories are considered more compelling. To try and make Celestial more appealing, I tried to give her a more vibrant personality. But regardless of the details I added to embroider her, beta readers still felt that she was “undeveloped” and that Roy was the character who popped. It almost drove me crazy. Finally, I realized that Roy held the readers’ attention because his problem was so huge. (He’s wrongfully incarcerated, for goodness sake!)

Undaunted (well, maybe a little daunted), I read stories by my favorite women writers who write beautifully about women’s inner lives. I checked out Amy Bloom, Antonia Nelson, Jennifer Egan. How did they manage to make emotional turmoil so visceral? In these writers’ hands, a small social slight can feel like a dagger. Why couldn’t I do this in my own novel?

I found the answer in the work of Toni Morrison, for all answers can be found there. It’s a matter of scale. There is a scene in The Bluest Eye where the lady of the house is distraught because her brother hasn’t invited her to his party, although she sent him to dental school. By itself, this is terrible and totally worthy of a story. However, in the same frame is Pauline, the maid who has suffered all manner of indignities in an earlier chapter. In the face of Pauline’s troubles, the matter of the party seems frivolous.

With this, I discovered a fundamental truth of fiction and perhaps of life: The character with the most pressing material crisis will always be the center of the story. Although Celestial’s challenges as a woman trying to establish herself in the world of art is intense, the fact of Roy’s wrongful incarceration makes her troubles seem like high-class problems and to center them in the novel feels distasteful to the reader, like wearing a yellow dress to a funeral and fretting over a scuffed shoe.

The solution: I made Roy the protagonist. Celestial’s voice is still there, but she is a secondary narrator. It was a hard choice because I was drawn to her story in the first place, but it was being drowned out by Roy’s narrative. Finally, I had to stop fighting it. The protagonist of An American Marriage is Roy Othaniel Hamilton.

It took me five years to figure this out. Of course, every craft solution makes for new craft obstacles. I’ll talk about the fall-out from this shift in my next (and final) Craft Capsule, next Tuesday.

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.

Craft Capsule: Who Are You?

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.4.18

This is no. 33 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

“When did you start writing?” Writers are often asked this question, and I’m always curious about the story behind the answers, the paths we take to find our vocations. As a child of immigrants, Korean was my first language. When I began elementary school, I found myself mentally switching between my mother tongue and English, trying to match vocabulary words across language lines. I soon found myself gravitating toward writing; with a pencil in my hand, I could take my time and express myself more clearly. In the first grade, I wrote about butterflies hatching for my beloved teacher, Ms. Benz. The next year, I wrote about a girl with short black hair who wanted to get her ears pierced, but whose Korean parents refused. I presented the story to my mother and father, hopeful and full of glee at my cunning. (Reader, they fell for it and let me pierce my ears.) “I’ve written ever since I was a child,” I say in answer to that question. But when did I find the stories I wanted to tell? That was a more recent discovery.  

As a sophomore in college, I took my first formal writing workshop. Somehow, over the course of my teenage years, my writing had changed. I no longer wrote stories that were rooted in my desires and questions about the world. Instead, I created characters without clear identities—their race, appearance, and backgrounds were murky, undefined. These young adults frolicked and fought on misty hills, drunk with mulberry-stained lips. I was trying to shy away from what I thought was expected of me. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as the Korean American workshopper who could only write about “Asian” issues. But I sensed that something was wrong with my characters: They were vague, flat, lifeless.Who is this girl?” a classmate asked. “Don’t be afraid to write about what you know,” my teacher said. 

At first I resisted these suggestions, digging deeper into my no-name characters without a clear sense of home. That is, until the summer break between my sophomore and junior year. One June evening I had dinner with my parents. Over a meal of galbi-tang, rice, wine, and ice cream, my parents recounted their childhoods. My father described catching grasshoppers from his neighbors’ field, of cooking them on a skillet over an open flame. My mother told me of staining her fingers orange with bong seon hwa flowers, which I loved to do during my summer visits to Korea as well.  

The next morning, I found myself still mulling over my parents’ stories. I imagined my father as a child, his lithe body running through high grass in search of those plump green insects. I loved that the act of staining fingers with flower petals, which my sister and I did every summer in Korea, was not only a family tradition, but a Korean one. These stories stayed with me all summer and through the fall, when my undergraduate classes resumed. This time in my fiction workshop, I wrote with greater purpose and clarity. I developed characters with a culture and history behind them. Better, I thought.

The more I wrote, the more I sought my family. When I began my graduate studies, I turned to my maternal grandmother. A fierce matriarch and gifted storyteller, my grandmother shared her life with me—she lived under Japanese occupation, survived the Korean War, and forged a life for her daughters in the years afterward. I absorbed these anecdotes, sometimes taking notes and sometimes just listening. 

When I began If You Leave Me, my debut novel, I knew I wanted to write about the Korean War. More important, I knew I wanted the main character to be a Korean woman who was strong, willful, intelligent, stubborn, and full of contradictions. I wanted a female protagonist that readers would love one moment and argue with the next, someone who felt as complex as our best friends and lovers do. I created Haemi Lee, a teenaged refugee living in Busan during the war. I rooted her story in my grandmother’s experiences, but I added my own desires and questions and fears until Haemi became a character of her own. 

It took me a few wayward years, but I eventually realized that writing about my culture does not confine me as a writer. Instead, my history provides a pool of memory for me to draw inspiration from. Now, when I teach creative writing, I emphasize this process for my students. I encourage them to value every part of their identities.

“Who are you?” I ask. “Tell me what you know.”

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: A Bird in the Sky

by

Simon Van Booy

6.6.18

This is no. 29 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Having a writing practice is like rowing out to sea in a small boat with a typewriter and sandwiches, hoping for the arrival of some strange bird in the sky. 

After a few hours you tell yourself, “It’s only been a few hours.”  

But when days pass with not even a feather, you wonder, “Am I in the right place? I should have brought binoculars.” You keep looking though—searching the empty sky for some sign, some intervention, a tangible indication that you’re good enough to write, educated enough, wild enough, rich enough, poor enough, sober enough, drunk enough, mystical enough, existential enough.  

Months pass. You’ve been rowing out to the same deep water for weeks and weeks. You’ve lost track of days. Seasons have changed. Where your hands once bled on the oars, there are calluses. You’ve survived heaving seas, blistering heat, and torrential downpours. 

At this point most people toss their typewriters over the side of the boat, and row for the safety of land. Without the bird, they say, nothing is possible.

But you remain in the boat, listening to yourself breathe, a film of salt on your skin. You sit down and pick up the typewriter, rest it on your sore legs, and start to imagine the story you once dreamed of writing. You don’t care about the bird anymore, the words are enough, the sentences are ropes you can use to pull yourself through the narrative.

Then suddenly you look up, there’s a dazzling light, like some mystical, winged creature with blazing eyes.  

As writers, we don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration waits for us.

Don’t ever forget that.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: Finding Your Story

by

Tayari Jones

1.16.18

This is the twenty-first in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Like most thoughtful people, I have noticed that the world is on fire and I want to use my skills to help extinguish the flames. To this end, I set out five years ago to write a novel that addresses the injustice of wrongful incarceration. I applied for and received a fellowship to the Radcliffe Institute and I became a dedicated researcher. I learned a lot, so much so that I got angry just watching Law & Order, my ex-favorite television show. I was informed, “woke,” and motivated, but I couldn’t write a novel because I had no story. The problem was that I was trying to write to the issue, and I can only write a story that is issue-adjacent.

I know I have a novel when I have a question to which I don’t know the moral/ethical answer. When it comes to wrongful incarceration, I am not torn. The state should not imprison innocent people. Full stop. Also without ambiguity: The prison system is cruel, corrupt, and in desperate need of reform, if not abolition.

So where was the novel?

The answer revealed itself in a food court where I spied a young couple. She was dressed in a lovely cashmere coat. He wore inexpensive khakis and a polo. They were clearly angry, and clearly in love. I overheard the woman say, “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.” He shot back, “What are you talking about? This shit wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.”

Just then, I knew I had a novel. The reason is that I understood that they were both probably right. I didn’t know him, but I couldn’t quite picture him waiting chastely by for seven years. At the same time, I couldn’t imagine her behind bars. But did he have a right to demand her loyalty when both seem to agree she would be in no position to demand the same? Was this question moot since she would not likely face this challenge? Was this a kind of privilege? Could she mitigate this privilege by waiting like a modern-day Penelope? Should she?

So we have a couple with a conflict, and at stake between them are issues of reciprocity, duty, and love. Yes, there is the injustice of mass incarceration. And yes, this injustice is fueled by racism and prejudice. Neither of them doubt this, and neither do I. But the question of “will you wait for me” is foremost on his mind.

The result is my new novel, An American Marriage. Roy and Celestial are newlyweds, married only eighteen months, when Roy is arrested for a crime he did not commit. When he is slapped with a twelve-year sentence, the questions of desire and responsibility are at the center of the characters’ lives. As a writer, I was genuinely torn: Roy needs Celestial to be a link to the life he left behind, and Celestial loves her husband, but she has only one life. I wrote this novel not only to satisfy my heart’s curiosity as to what they would do, but to also satisfy the part of my mind that wondered what should they do.

I realized that my passion for the issue of incarceration was the reason that I couldn’t write about it directly. A novel is not me, as a writer, telling the reader what I already know. And an honest novel is not about me pretending to take on “both sides” of an issue about which I have a clear opinion. I had to start with my issue and then walk away from it until I found the thing I didn’t know. To truly challenge the reader, I had to challenge myself as well.

 

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.

 

Craft Capsule: Writing “After”

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.16.19

This is no. 43 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

The day after the 2015 AME Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, another poet—seemingly out of nowhere—sent me a poem by Mary Oliver. They said it was because, when they read it out loud, the voice they made (or tried to make) was mine. Instantly I loved the poem, “October,” and I told them so. Still, because “October” made its way to me the day after terrible news, it also unsettled me. It moved me, but at the same time I felt the need to move against it. 

As in many Mary Oliver poems, the speaker attends to the natural world and her place in it. She asks, “What does the world / mean to you if you can’t trust it / to go on shining when you’re // not there?” By the end of the poem, it’s clear that the speaker has decided, at least for now, that in order to truly love the world, she has to be reconciled to the fact, the beautiful fact, that it will (that it ought to) go on without her. That the world will not at all be diminished by her not being there to witness it. The poem ends: “so this is the world. / I’m not in it. / It is beautiful.” 

The speaker of the poem wrestles with her own attachments to herself. She is trying to let go of her importance, to get out of the way. But by addressing a “you”—presumably a reader—in the poem, she makes an argument that extends beyond herself; she stakes out an ethical position. Most days it’s one I would agree with. Most days I would have left the poem unbothered. But on that day after the shooting, feeling acutely all of the ways in which the people I call mine are told they do not have a claim on the world in the first place—are dispossessed, are rubbed out—Oliver’s call for self-diminishment felt plainly, profoundly wrong. I wanted to see what would happen, therefore, if I used the structure of Oliver’s poem but turned the argument against itself. This experiment resulted in “Bad News, Again,” a poem that rewrites “October” but asks the first, urgent question embedded in Oliver’s longer one: “What does the world mean / if you can’t trust it to go on?” 

A handful of the poems in my new collection, Dispatch, perform similar experiments, insofar as they try to redirect contemporary poems I love to different ends. As a result I feel very anxious about the new iterations of old conversations about plagiarism, theft, and ‘after’ poems that have surfaced online in the past few years. Anxious, in part, because I did not have a developed sense of the ethics of such a practice when I first took it up. I still don’t. However, these conversations often seem to miss that there are multiple reasons one might “steal” or “borrow” or “deface” another’s work. There seems to be an assumption that the only potentially defensible motive for imitating another’s work is a sense of uncomplicated admiration. But when is admiration ever uncomplicated? What if, for example, you suspect the work you admire does not respect you, or cannot conceive of you? What if your admiration is not only enabling but also deeply injurious? What if, in this case, theft and/or defacement might be an ethical response? 

In an oft-cited passage from The Sacred Wood, T. S. Eliot insists: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” In my defense, I do not think that I have written a better poem than Mary Oliver, not by any measure, but the point was to make her work consider me. It seems to me that is what love demands.  

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Craft Capsule: Ordering the Story Collection

by

Kimberly King Parsons

7.22.19

This is no. 38 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I always read short story collections in order. Maybe this is because my earliest infatuations happened via mix tape (and by mix tape, I mean a CD that I burned or that someone burned for me, with songs meant to convey something deep and unspeakable). Unlike with a cassette, one could, in theory, set the CD player to random, but this would break an unspoken rule. The point was to put on your headphones, lie on your bed, and think about the person who made the mix for you. You’d hold the handwritten track list and listen to the songs in their intended order, so you could figure out what this person was trying to say. You paid close attention to the lyrics, the tone, the transitions. A successful mix tape meant never forgetting about the “author.” How exactly did they feel about you? Did you feel the same way? Maybe you hadn’t before, but now, alone in your room with all those perfectly chosen songs, maybe you were charmed. 

Assembling a short story collection is a daunting process: Often the individual pieces have been written as unique, standalone works, edited by staff with varying aesthetics at different literary journals, and published over a span of years. The earliest version of my collection, Black Light, wasn’t really a collection—it was just a bunch of stories I wrote and published between 2005 and 2017. It took my terrific agent to help me see that one of the stories was actually the beginning of a novel, that two others needed to be combined into a longer piece, and that one story had a voice too abstract and confrontational to fit in with the rest. Once these decisions were made, the stories that we kept had a kind of reverberation with each other. A musicality.

In an informal poll, my friends who read collections tell me they don’t read in order. They start with the shortest story, or the title story, or they read in reverse order or at random. This is all fine—unless the stories are linked, order shouldn’t make or break a collection—but when I was putting Black Light together, sequence became very important to me. I love the way my favorite collections bend time, pull me in and out of different worlds, immerse me in a situation for thirty pages and then toss me out. 

I had three very long stories and three very short ones and half a dozen in between. I liked the idea of giving moments of reprieve, little spaces to breathe, so flash pieces often came after the longest ones. Everybody knows how important the first track of a mix tape is, and I wanted to start my collection with my most affable narrator. In the story “Guts,” Sheila is bewildered by new circumstance: She’s recently fallen for a medical student, and suddenly she sees sickness and beauty everywhere she looks. This newfound empathy overwhelms her, and in that way she’s a great proxy for a reader entering the strange world of the collection. All my stories deal with similar themes—game playing, escapism, desire—but I had strong ideas about how to move through the different voices of the remaining narrators (urban and rural, child and adult, male and female, queer and straight) in a way that felt balanced and varied to me.

On the first call with my editor, before we’d even made a deal, she talked about her vision for the collection. She liked the order, the way the stories “sang” to one another. She compared her favorite collections to music: She wanted this book to feel cohesive and unified, but never repetitive. Like a perfect mix tape, she said, a book of short stories should make the reader fall in love. I knew then that I’d found the right person for my project.

 

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.

Craft Capsule: Elegy

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.23.19

This is no. 44 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Elegies speak to both [the living and the dead], forced to negotiate the impossible ethical demands of a genre that strives neither to disrespect the memory of the dead nor to ignore the needs of the living.

Diana Fuss

Each November, for nearly a decade, I have written a poem marking Trans Day of Remembrance (TDoR), an annual day of mourning for trans people lost to anti-trans violence. These poems are almost uniformly bad, but the most recent one, “Anti-Elegy,” made its way into Dispatch. I hope it will be the last of them. 

I find this occasional writing practice a confusing one—shameful, consoling, deadening, and, somehow, like feeding a tiny fire. From the beginning, I have known all of the critiques of TDoR: It has historically enabled white activists to extract political capital from the deaths of primarily Black trans women; the frame of “anti-trans” violence obscures more than it explains about the curtailing of trans feminine life; TDoR circulates “the trans woman of color” as a dead figure and therefore strips her of her life, her worlds. Still, it also is true that I came to understand trans as something it was possible for me to be when my high school’s tiny gay-straight alliance erected cardboard tombstones in the hallway to mark those trans women who had been lost. Trans became an intimate possibility in reference to strangers’ deaths. For this reason, trans has always felt, to me, entangled with elegy. 

The classic elegy—at least as I understand it—has a three-part structure: lament, praise, consolation. First you express deep sorrow over someone’s passing; then you praise their life, usually in idealized terms; then you provide some consolation for the living. Poets and scholars have long debated the ethics of elegy—whether an elegy can ever provide the consolation it promises, whether and under what circumstances we ought to make use of the dead, whether mourning enables or precludes political action. The answer to each of these questions is, of course, it depends. Still, there were two sentences from Diana Fuss’s Dying Modern: A Meditation on Modern Elegy on my mind the November I wrote “Anti-Elegy,” sentences that prompted me to return to my own questions about for whom and to what ends the elegy works. In the first, Fuss argues that the effect of elegy is “not merely to recognize the dead but also to bring them back to life.” In the second, she affirms R. Clifton Spargo’s claim that “ethics and elegy…both typically view every death as an injustice.” 

TDoR, too, is structured by these general claims: that it is important to keep the memory of individuals alive—to keep them with us—and that each entry on the list of the dead is an injustice. Undoubtedly each death on the list is the outcome of an injustice, but I’ve become increasingly suspicious of the idea that death itself is unjust. Often what is unjust is everything that preceded the end. What is unjust is the terms of living. There is something deeply unsettling, that is, to the insistence that someone ought to be alive in a world that did little to support that life. There is something deeply unsettling, therefore, about Fuss’s characterization of the elegy as a genre that strives to reanimate the dead, to bring them back. 

I find “Anti-Elegy,” as the product of these reflections, to be unsettling; its questioning of the elegy inevitably involves questioning the terms by which I came to understand myself as trans, by which I came to understand myself. Perhaps for this reason “Anti-Elegy” is formally an unsettled poem; it asks question after question and does not ever arrive at answers: “Who am I to say rise?…who am I to say, dance // with me here a little longer?” Driving this accumulation of questions is another question just beneath the surface—the poem is really asking, over and over, Should this poem exist? Should this poem exist? It depends. But this is, for all of us, an important question to ask of our work before we put it into the world. 

If we’re lucky, one poem leads us to the next. In this case, “Anti-Elegy” led me to write “All My Friends Are Sad & Bright,” a poem that is technically an elegy, but which leaves the dead in peace. Certainly this isn’t an answer to the “impossible ethical demands” of elegy, but there is something to be said for a poetics of trans/Black/queer life that takes death as its impetus, but not its object, that mourns but also (and because of this) hopes. 

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Craft Capsule: In Praise of Writing in Longhand

by

Kimberly King Parsons

7.29.19

This is no. 39 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

This sounds made up, but in my high school you could substitute a typing class for gym. As a bookish, lazy teenager, this was perfect for me. The class was called Fundamentals of Keyboarding, and we spent all semester doing home-key practices and speed drills. Near the end of each session the teacher would hand us some random page of text—it might be instructions for building a birdhouse or a page of a novel—and it was our job to type it, print it, and staple it to the original. I wasn’t great at a lot of things in high school, but I turned out to be a terrifically fast typist who rarely made mistakes; I loved holding the papers up to the light, seeing my words perfectly overlap with those on the handout. 

As an exercise in my first fiction workshop, the professor asked us to type a short story by our favorite writer. The idea was to feel the words come through our fingers, to pound out the rhythm of those admirable sentences ourselves. I still find typing immensely satisfying—it’s relaxing, almost a form of meditation. I like the mechanics of it, the way each letter translates to a physical movement, to a clicking sound, to a shape on the screen. I also have terrible handwriting. It’s barely legible and embarrassing, like someone has dared me to use my non-dominant hand. 

When I’m writing fiction, I’m typing on my laptop into a document, using the features meant to make things easy: cut, copy and paste, backspace. It’s convenient, it’s fast, and it’s the preferred method for most of the writers I know. I do a lot of pre-work in my head, by sound, so by the time I sit down to write, I have at least a few sentences ready. In the completely new sections, I’ll get into a flow, typing as fast as I can think, then doubling back and reading each sentence aloud. I’m constantly making changes as I go: correcting errors, substituting or cutting words, shifting whole sections around on the page.

But every once in a while I’ll get stuck, hung up on some fundamental, propulsive element of the story, like I’ve reached the end of the thread. Maybe I’m insecure about what comes next, paralyzed by doubt. Or maybe there’s a problem with a sentence I can’t work out on the screen, something tangled about the rhythm or syntax. As much as I hate it, the best thing I can do in this situation is pull the problem out of the computer and write it down.

All the usual disadvantages of writing in longhand become advantages: It’s slow, it requires more mechanical effort, the words must come in order with no easy erasures. I also have rules for myself: no crossing things out or moving/inserting words. If what I’ve written is wrong, I have to skip a line and write it again. If I realize halfway through a paragraph that a sentence belongs at some earlier point, I start the whole section over. When I’m writing things down, I press too hard and my hand cramps, so I have to take frequent breaks. This slow-building repetition lets me see the work differently. Writing in longhand is also uniquely tactile—there’s the feeling of the pen in my grip, my hand drifting across the page. I’m forcing my brain and body to connect with the story in a new way. 

Once I solve the problem, I’m eager to open the document on my computer. I’ll type in the revised section and move on, fast at the keyboard, back to the easy rhythm and familiar feel, until, inevitably, I come to the next snag. 

 

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.

Craft Capsule: Multiple Narrators

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.18.18

This is no. 35 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Before I became a writer, I was first an insatiable reader. From Curious George to Little Women to The Lover, I can mark the trajectory of my development as a writer against my reading choices. A particularly memorable turning point happened when I was eight years old. While at the library, I came across a chapter book called Morning Girl. The cover showed a young girl with dark brown hair and bare shoulders swimming in the open sea, and I picked it up because of the striking image. As I began reading, I fell for Morning Girl’s lush, bright voice as she described her fondness for waking early and searching the beach for seashells. I felt keenly for Morning