Thursday, June 30, 2011

How Boot Camp -- Starting Tomorrow -- Might Actually Work.

This is how it's going to work.

1. I'm going to give you some memory exercises every day. Basically, it's my firm belief that the dark finery of your subconscious is packed to the gills with great curiosities -- things that have already been edited by memory, things that have withstood the test of time and remained -- seared in -- because they hold some great resonance. "Memory is a net," claims Oliver Wendell Holmes. It lets go of the unimportant, the trivial, and holds onto the things that make for great writing.

So, we're going to muck around in there and collect.

2. I'm going to give you eavesdropping assignments. Richard Ford has written, "I collect lines and snippets of things somebody might say -- … then characters begin to emerge.” I want three things overheard everyday. If you're not out in the world enough to collect three things per day, you might want to get out into the world a little more frequently.

3. I'm going to give you random reading assignments, in hopes of underscoring the skills of reading like a writer. Saul Bellow once said something like, "A writer is a reader who has moved to emulation." I don't like the narrowness of the statement, but there's something to take from it -- and we will.

4. I'll be assigning a daily collection of images because the writing life is much easier if you experience the world as a writer -- with eye and ear and empathy. It makes for a clunky, distracted existence of stumbling and getting turned around and having to ask people to repeat themselves, but I think it helps your writing, overall, if not your personal relationships. (This isn't personal relationship boot camp.) As Benoit Mandelbrot once said, "The most important instrument of thought is the eye."

5. Quotes. I'll provide writerly quotes, as you see above, and you can think about them, if you want.

AND THE POINT OF ALL THIS?

The world is a very textured place. I believe that the best art reflects that textured experience. You will take all of these seemingly disparate images and stitch them together to make written art of some kind which is 6. The final assignment of trying to take the scraps and make something larger.

7. There might be rants.

So, it starts tomorrow. If you're in and you want to make this more official, you can sign-in in the comment box every day. You can mouth off, if you dare...

If you want to just hang-out and lurk -- or even poach some assignments for later -- or for your students, if you're a teacher -- feel free.


ALSO, if this works for you in some way -- this daily jump start -- and the writing that comes of it startles you in a good way -- then you might want to sign up for THE WRITING REGIMENS at THE SOUTHEAST REVIEW. It's super cheap and very smart and jammed with great resources and pep talks and exercises. Brilliant stuff and a great way to support a literary magazine at the same time.
(They also have contests and post winning works by regimen participants
so a good way to get published.)
If you want to know when the next one is, email southeastreview@gmail.com.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Ernessa T. Carter


A 1/2 Dozen
for novelist
(and brilliant blogger
at www.fierceandnerdy.com)
the fierce & nerdy
Ernessa T. Carter
herself
who gives great advice

on love
and criticism
and the honest truth
about bullying.
Enjoy!





Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How wo
uld you describe your relationship with the page?

I used to love to write. I used to produce pages upon pages in one sitting like a writer in a movie montage. But that's because I wasn't very disciplined back then. Now I have formal writing hours: I write when I want to write, I write when I don't want to write, I write when I feel indifferent to writing in general. The point is to write no matter what. It feels very much like a long marriage. I've come to accept both the highs and the lows of the relationship, and even when we get in terrible arguments, I know writing and I are going to be together forever.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

Don't. I'm really not kidding about that. I often wonder why anyone would marry a writer. But I've also noticed that many of the women writers I know have truly wonderful husbands. It's funny because writers are way more mercurial then we tend to let on, I think. We're happy and confident sometimes, but then we're a complete mess at others. We can be weirdly arrogant. We tend to think we're right a lot. We need lots and lots and lots of reassurance -- seriously, don't be afraid to just pour it on. I, myself, would never, ever marry a writer. But God bless the people who do, especially my saintly husband, who I love very much.

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

Look for someone who is genuinely nice, who likes being supportive. Look for someone who likes to read and who likes watching the same kind of movies and television that you do -- this doesn't seem like an important detail at first, but trust me, you don't want to retire with someone who doesn't like the same TV programs you like. It'll definitely come up later in the relationship, especially after you have kids and less time for grown-up entertainment options. If you are funny, marry someone who laughs at your jokes -- especially if you're a woman. Don't marry anyone who you can't write in front of. Make sure you test this out before things get too serious. Drag out your laptop and write with him in the same room. Can you still concentrate with him there? Does he interrupt you with questions? Clip his toenails in your eyeline? Then dump him. Also, if there are qualities that you feel you are missing, then marry someone with those qualities, someone who has something to teach you. My husband is the king of follow-through and he's exceedingly patient and kind. But he can't spell or write formally. So yeah, we complete each other.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

#47 Stay well-hydrated. Seriously, drink your 8 glasses of water a day. It keeps your writing mind sharp(er).
Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

In the early months of publication, I would read all of my reviews. Some were great, a few were bad. I tend to forget about the bad ones over time and the good ones all sort of run together. Also, I'm not a fan of having my ego surging up or down when I read a good or bad review, so I decided to just not read any reviews anymore. In general, I'm pretty good about criticism. I used to be a critic on the side and still do book reports for my own blog, so karma-wise, I've probably earned any unkind words I've received. But at the end of the day, it's just someone's opinion. I don't take mine all that seriously, so it easy to shrug off both the good and the bad from others ... eventually.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

Oh, I was a horrible kid. I got bullied a lot for being dark-skinned, and I responded to this by becoming a verbal bully to others, questioning their intelligence and trying to make them feel as bad on the inside as others made me feel about my outside. I'm a much better person now. Most of my current friends are from my post-high school years. And I always tell people that they wouldn't have wanted to know me before the age of nineteen. I find it a bit disingenuous when grown folks complain today about being bullied when they were children. I mean if tales are to be believed, the vast majority of us were bullied, but that also means most of us must have taken part in bullying someone else. But for whatever reason we choose not to remember what we said and did to others, only what was done to us.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

No, and to be frank I don't want to. I'm very Hollywood, baby. I don't even like to work with people who I suspect might have a good work/life balance. It's really goes against my moral values.

Find out more about Ernessa's debut novel at http://32Candles.com

Follow Ernessa on Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/ErnessaTCarter


Ernessa T. Carter has worked as an ESL teacher in Japan, a music journalist in Pittsburgh, a payroll administrator in Burbank, and a radio writer for American Top 40 with Ryan Seacrest in Hollywood. Carter's also a retired L.A. Derby Doll (roller derby). A graduate of Smith College and Carnegie Mellon University’s MFA program, she now lives in Los Angeles. 32 Candles is her first novel. She blogs at www.fierceandnerdy.com.

Why I Haven't Posted -- On Brooding, Beginnings, and Endings.

When I was a kid, I knew when my mother was in a mood. She was a pianist -- classically trained. If asked what my mother did, she liked it when I answered, "Concert pianist." In fact, performing made her sick, literally. She wasn't cut out for it. She was so good at the piano in part because she was obsessive-compulsive. A high-anxiety type, performing wasn't her thing.

But, man, she could play the hell out of some dark brooding classical pieces. And if you walked up to the house with some friends and she was into someone like Mahler, well, to be sure, our palsied Dalmation would be curled up and quivering under the baby grand and you should likely just turn around, explaining the dire situation to your friends, and head back out into the wilds of suburbia. (Eventually my friends knew Mahler themselves.)

Now, my kids know when I'm beginning a novel -- the brooding and glowering that comes before I light on something that I think can bear the weight of a novel. They know when I'm writing my false starts. And they know when I'm trying to finish a novel -- those final pages that seem to require my rapt attention. I warn them. I don't lock the door to my office, but they know that it better be good.

And the G., our sitter, knows this too. I'll walk into the kitchen and talk through some plot line. She knows she should like this plot line even if I tell her it's stupid. She'll remind me that I thought my last plot line was stupid -- the one that's now a novel. And I'll tell her that it was stupid, actually. I just spent long hours dressing it up so that it didn't look stupid -- like Sarah Palin who's had corrective eye surgery but still wears the glasses to up her perceived IQ. And the G. knows when it's kind of worthless to continue to talk to me, just let me go.

And then there's Dave who has to sit through this false start and then that one, who has to hear me say, "I've listed all of the things I can't write about and, as far as I can tell, it includes all of human existence." (When you write lists of dead ends, it means you're only seeing dead ends. It's a very bad sign.)

And so ... I have been in the starting mode. Yesterday, I called my editor for Bridget Asher novels and sighed my way through the current plot. "Is this even remotely interesting?" I'd interrupt myself -- ever the salesman -- and at the end, I said, "And then, you know, something happens or something and I don't know, what do you think?"

And we talk. She's brilliant, this editor. She knows my worlds very well. This is our fourth book together. And by the end of the conversation, I feel kind of humbled and shy and I say, "You're great. I mean it. Thank you ... for talking me through ... this."

(Did I mention the panic attack in the middle of the night -- the one in which I was sure I'd never write again?)

This is what helps -- having people around, smart ones, supportive ones, ones who let you brood and do your own versions of Mahler gloominess, ones who know when to let you talk and when to tell you to just get to it.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Letter to the Parent of a Writerly Type.

So a friend from college says he has a colleague who is father to a daughter who has just gotten into an undergraduate Creative Writing Program -- a selective major. My friend asked if the colleague could drop me a line. (Well, in fact, my friend wrote, "Of course, I told him that you are arrogant, wound tight and had very little patience for 'regular people' but that didn't seem to deter him. He still asked that I convey his request." Very funny.)

I said, Sure, of course. Send him on.


So the email from the father shows up the next day. He's asking for advice. I write the following. And he hasn't written back -- so far, at least.

hey, first off, congratulations to your daughter!

i can tell by the tenor of your email that you don't need peptalk #1 -- which is designed to explain the Creative Writing major to parents who were hoping for Pre-Law. a relief.

my main suggestion to the parents of young writers is to know your role.

1. you support them. this means you're relieved of your role as editor or critic. they'll get tons of that.

2. you give them free reign to write what they need to write -- and that includes writing about you and the family. i've been cautious not to write much about my siblings. i have a voice, they aren't writers. but parents -- they should be fair game. what better way do we have of understanding who we are than from understanding who we come from? this might be hard -- but the family is her terrain now if she wants it.

3. apply no pressure to publish. publishing is the career. this is an older person's game. the pressure to publish too early can be crippling and can cause shut-down. aside from the lit mags at her University, she shouldn't think about publishing for many years. 30 is a very young novelist. she needs to think only of craft for as long as possible.

4. this means she'll need time. time is much more important than talent. try to help her afford time. (time is expensive.)

i send young writers to a few month period of my blog -- http://bridgetasher.blogspot.com/ -- AUGUST- NOV of 2009 -- where i offer a lot of early lessons to young writers (including this post on time versus talent: http://bridgetasher.blogspot.com/2009/07/time-versus-talent.html )


I signed off with a shout to our friend-in-common, and that's it.

A few days go by. I say to Dave, "I wonder what I said wrong to that father ... He hasn't written back. I wonder what he really wanted me to say?"

Dave says, "He wanted you to tell him that you wanted to read his daughter's work and help her get published."

"Oh."

"That's not what you wrote him, I'm guessing."

"Sure wasn't."

In any case, I thought it might be of use to some others out there -- or not. In any case, I've posted it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

An Update: Laying Down the Summer Rules.

Look. We were bold in the Laying Down of Summer Plans. If I said that the kids have now successful built models of Frank Lloyd Wright's most enduring designs and written UN peace proclamations that they intend to take to the student government for resolutions in the fall and that our house had a brand new mural, I'd be lying.

I can't say the plans have backfired -- but one look at our house might make you think that the house itself has backfired somehow -- a mess of glue and nail polish and fallen Barbies and fabric and tools and blueberries and dog fur and DVD cases and bent books and lost iPods and some woe and some joy and some shouting of "Do you think I'm air conditioning the whole neighborhood?" and "Working hard? Let me tell you what hard work is...," and lots of smoke, depending on the wind (heard the news? some stuff is on fire) and dishes and laundry (smeared with asphalt from an old asphalt factory where the boys were on set for three days) and glue-hardened strings wrapped around balloons hanging in the breezelessway and wet swimwear and a random ab roller kind of thing and mismatched flipflops (my friend recently said, "I'm no going to call your place The Home of One Shoe. Look, there's one. There's another one. There's another.")

The front yard? Well, the garage was cleaned out, the babyish toys housed down to give away, and now they sit like refugees in a clump on the front lawn, which is home to a massive actual-size soccer goal bounce back decorated by a faded patch of lawn in front of it. There's the tired sprinkler that's supposed to bring that patch back. (Even the sprinkler knows it's over.)

And the yard itself is dotted with brightly colored soccer balls -- like some Easter egg hunt on steroids, that's been abandoned. See the metaphor -- our bloated hopes...

And do I sometimes want to abandon this quest myself? I do. I'd rather go out in victory like Bjorn Borg -- but sometimes you think, well, let's drink soda and watch 80s movies -- all day long.

But then I walk in and one kid is making something in the blender -- don't ask -- and another is reading Hounds of the Baskerville and saying that it's actually pretty good -- he's imagining Law and Downey Jr., fine by me -- and another is making a yarn ponytail and another says, "I know what I'm going to be for Halloween next year," and he goes on to explain that he's going to be a compass -- but -- get this -- a WORKING compass -- now THAT is an idea that could only come from the brutality of limited-screen-time, open-hours-on-end summer boredom bearing down on a child's soul -- and it's okay again. I don't know how the hell to help a child make himself into a walking compass, but it's going to be okay.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for John Hoppenthaler

A 1/2 Dozen

for poet

John Hoppenthaler

(love story included)



Here goes:

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?


I was a child with an active imagination, an avid reader, and one equally at home by myself or with others. I don’t remember that solitude ever made me lonely as a child. I spent much of my time alone by choice, whether fishing in the local ponds and streams, reading, or in my room. I guess this let me do a lot of thinking. I also watched a lot of television; on its surface, this might seem counterproductive to a life of writing but, truly, I believe that the television made me very aware of sixties, seventies and eighties culture, and those discoveries reveal themselves in my poems. Socially, I enjoyed humor and more than one report card identified me as the class clown. When an aunt asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I replied, “a comedian.” This prepared me well for teaching and the performative aspects of being a poet. I guess it also prepared me for the job of dealing with criticism, disappointment, rejection, and the realization of my weaknesses as a writer. Ha, ha, ha.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

After two failed attempts as an undergraduate, I found myself, in the early eighties, back home in New City, NY. My parents—off the boat immigrants who knew the value of money and the price of failure—were not impressed. I enrolled at the local community college, where I decided to give poetry a shot. I was lucky in that Rockland Community College could boast of two “real” poets: Dan Masterson and John Allman, and so my poetry career began. But I needed to support myself, as I had squandered large student loans and my parents were unwilling to house and feed a loafer. So my dad got me a job as a night custodian at the high school I had graduated from, Clarkstown North. A poem in Anticipate the Coming Reservoir, “Tommy's Earthbound Son Gets to Jump Center on Senior Night,” speaks to this experience a bit, though in a fictional context. This was the best job a young poet could ever have had! The work was mindless: dustmopping, wetmopping, straightening desks and chairs, and so I had eight hours a night to think and sit down at a desk and jot down lines. After work, I’d go to the New City Pub and get wasted. Portrait of the Artist indeed! I also have worked as Toni Morrison’s personal assistant (I’ll leave it to readers to decide how THAT may have influenced my writing), a bartender, a front-of-the-house restaurant worker, a construction worker, in my own lawn mowing business, in a neighbor’s mail order jewelry business, as a salesman in a department store, as a convention services worker in a Hyatt Hotel, and as a house painter.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

When my first book, Lives of Water, was published in 2003, I really didn’t expect criticism. I mean, a first book of poetry by an unknown—who would want to critique such a book? Or perhaps I wasn’t that na├»ve and merely exiled the possibility so as not to have to deal with it. In any case, review copies were sent out and reviews appeared.

Two of these reviews, it seemed to me then (and now, having just re-read them) fail to do what I, as a reader of them, expect of reviews. Is this the opinion of a sorehead? Perhaps. But let me explain. I share expectations laid out by Jay Parini and Abigail Thomas in a Poets & Writers feature on the art of reviewing in 2003, the same year these reviews appeared: “’I’d like an accurate description of the plot,’ [Parini] says, ‘and a fairly open-minded approach to what I intended. Essentially I think a reviewer should always ask him or herself, ‘What did the writer set out to achieve and did he or she come anywhere near achieving those things?’” Thomas suggests that, instead of this, “too many reviewers focus on how they themselves might have conceived the book.” This suggests, of course, aesthetic wars, and that’s what the two negative (versus the four or five positive reviews) seemed bent on doing, belittling the work of those who choose to write differently than they would wish instead of providing a clear-thinking potential reader of the book with the information she or he needs in order to make an informed decision about whether or not to buy the book. As Steve Almond puts it in a piece called “How It Feels,” “even those critics whose sole focus was ostensibly my book were often writing about something else: themselves.”

Here’s what I mean. In a American Book Review roundup of all of Carnegie Mellon University Press books for 2003, the reviewer makes it clear from the outset what is about to occur: “While some university presses—Wesleyan and Pittsburgh for example—have recently made gestures toward more oblique varieties of poetry, the Carnegie Mellon series continues to promote the flat American workshop style circa 1975 . . . .” My book is attacked first. Imagine how I felt when I read this: “but craft does not equal art, and the product is a slice of an ordinary, if somewhat sentimentalized, life filtered through an unadventurous imagination and spoken in a voice indistinguishable from hundreds that have preceded it. Perhaps this is best, since Hoppenthaler strains mightily when attempting to extend the reach of his similes . . . .” Ouch. As a first book, it is marked by weaknesses and half-realized goals that most first books exhibit, so why such hostility? And why choose a minor poem in the book (rather than any number of more fully-realized poems) to make his petty argument? Who knows? You’ll need to ask him, but the essay ends with a statement that doesn’t accurately represent my book and echoes a complaint I will make of the other bad review; that is, this reviewer assumes that the book is a collection of poems in the confessional/personal mode when, in fact, other than two or three of them, they are persona poems. This is the worst sort of an error a critic can make.

The other negative review was published in the Philadelphia Enquirer and, again, right from the start it is clear that the author is not out to review my book (or Fleda Brown’s The Women Who Loved Elvis All Their Lives), but to skewer Carnegie Mellon for publishing a sort of poem he doesn’t like. Once again, the critical mistake is made of assuming it is I who is the speaker of the poems and not a series of personae: “Romance is a frequent subject in Lives of Water. In poems where a woman appears, Hoppenthaler is probably his best critic, aware that a “poem could easily / dissolve into that self-conscious / male romanticism we’ve all learned // to distrust.” Yet he persists in this mode for the remainder of the poem and in several others about his nostalgia for a series of former girlfriends.” ARE YOU KIDDING? I never met the guy, and the fact is that only two of those poems are about an actual girlfriend of mine, and one of those is entirely a fiction! How can he assume to know something like that and state it with such arrogant authority in a major newspaper? The poem from which he quotes is a poem in which I intentionally include the very lines he quotes so as to establish, yes, obliquely, that I was perfectly aware of what I was doing in that book. He was just more interested in dissing CMUP titles than he was in accuracy. Thank God for other reviews that were fair (if not glowing) and that did what reviews ought to do. Almond, in that same essay, points out that, when it comes to reviews, “There’s no appeals process. No way to defend yourself in the court of public opinion, nor to question the critic’s qualifications. Whatever they say, you eat. Period.” To hell with that, I’m thinking now. Let this be a shot across the bow. I’m willing to eat it if a reviewer fairly thinks my book is bad, if the poems in it do not stand up within the guidelines I set up, but I’d like to think it’s fair for me to say when a reviewer has made errors, or has not actually created a review but a piece of snark, or if a reviewer seems unqualified to have reviewed the book at all. A great book on the current state of book reviews is Faint Praise by Gail Pool.

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

I DO want to tell you a love story. And, two of those girlfriend poems that reviewer I write about above takes to task? They are at the heart of the story.

Years ago, as a PhD student at West Virginia University (a degree I chose not to finish when I was offered a job as Toni Morrison’s assistant), I taught graduate classes designed for students in the university’s ESL/TEOSL program. One of the students, I fell in love with. She was smart, an A student, and she was funny and cute. She loved being a student. If she had had her way, she would have stayed a student forever. She loved reading but had no desire to be a creative writer. After her stint as my student was over, I stole her from her boyfriend. I moved her into an apartment, and we stayed together for several months. Then she left me and went back to the guy I had stolen her from. Ouch. Heart-broken, I moved on but wrote two poems with her as a character. Ten years passed, and she largely passed from my memory.

The story picks up with me on a residency fellowship at the MacDowell colony, happily writing poems in Frost’s “dark and deep” woods. I go to check my email at the main building and find in my inbox a message from, yes, her! She and the boyfriend had married and had a child. Things had not worked out. She was unhappy and her thoughts had turned to me, the only other man she had ever loved. She Googled me and found, online, a poem called “Farm Sitting.” It was dedicated to her. It was entirely made up, as far as the poem’s setting and action are concerned, but the sentiment in it, the truth in it, she recognized. She loved the poem and bought the first book. She found in there a second poem about her. And she liked it, too, and she learned as well that I would be back in West Virginia as one of the faculty members at the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop. She wanted us to meet, and so did I. That was about six years ago. We were married last October. Poetry CAN make things happen; poetry DOES matter. Take that Mr. Gioia. Take that mystery book reviewer dissing my poems!

My advice? It’s this: seek a person who understands what it means to be a writer. They need to know that much of what we do is done in solitude, that even if we’re there physically, mentally we may be within character and a million miles away. They need to be okay with this. They need to understand that most of the money we make as writers comes not from royalties but from personal appearances and workshops, and this means a lot of time away from home. They need to not be too needy, but they need to be needy enough to have a writer as a partner! Ideally, they should not be writers themselves, but they should love to read. Ideally, they should be wealthy, too.

If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?

Well, the cash is important, since that’s how I put milk on my stepson’s cereal, but I’m also a person who understands and is grateful for what my teachers and mentors have done for me along the way. Listen, as an MFA student in Dave Smith’s classes at VCU in the late eighties, there’s no way Dave, any class member, or any reasonably sane observer would have thought that I would be one of the folks to “make it” in poetry, whatever that might mean. It took me many years to get to the point that I could write a poem that was publishable, and I still feel I have a very long way to go. Had it not been for the support of many folks along the way, had they not taken the time to work with me (several purely out of the goodness of their hearts), then I wouldn’t be here to answer this question and to say that I’d feel a fraud if I didn’t try to give to others as good as these poets gave me. Old school.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

I’d have to say that I am, or maybe that I have been, as I’m not yet sure that the poems of my third collection will be so landscape bound as the first two. This may well be because we’ve now lived in North Carolina for four years and I’ve yet to establish an alliance with the very flat, very hot, very Southern landscape of eastern North Carolina. But the poems of Lives of Water are mostly set in the Rockland County New York of my youth, with a few of the later poems in the collection (the book took me about six years to write) beginning to focus on the Rockland County of my adulthood, a place that has changed in hugely significant ways, which has gone from sleepy lower Hudson valley countryside to a bustling and marred suburban scene. Anticipate the Coming Reservoir is my attempt to process what was and what has become of the place. The speakers of the poems find much that is familiar in the landscape, yet these familiarities are juxtaposed with the unfamiliar and, for the most part, unwished for realities of the present. It’s not that you can’t go home again; it’s just that it’s not the same home you want to remember.

John Hoppenthaler books of poetry are Lives Of Water (2003) and Anticipate the Coming Reservoir (2008), both titles from Carnegie Mellon University Press. With Kazim Ali, he has co-edited a volume of essays on the poetry of Jean Valentine (forthcoming from U of Michigan P, 2012). His poetry appears in Ploughshares, Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Laurel Review, Barrow Street, West Branch, Christian Science Monitor, Pleiades, and Blackbird, as well as a number of anthologies, including Poetry Calendar (Alhambra Publishing), Making Poems: 40 Poems with Commentary by the Poets (State U of New York P), September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond (Etruscan Press), Blooming Through the Ashes (Rutgers UP), The Sound of Poets Cooking (JACAR Press), and Chance Of A Ghost (Helicon Nine Editions). Among his honors are an Arts Fellowship Award for Excellence in the Field of Literature from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History and the West Virginia Commission on the Arts, a North Carolina Community Council for the Arts Regional Artist Project Grant, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Elizabeth Bishop House, and the Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities. For eleven years, he served as Poetry Editor for Kestrel, and he now serves as the editor of A Poetry Congeries at the cultural site Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, where he also sits on the Advisory Board and curates a guest-edited poetry feature. He is also an Advisory Board Member for Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Words and Music Festival (WAMFEST). Personal Assistant to Toni Morrison for nine years, he is now an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at East Carolina University. He lives on the confluence of the Tar and Pamlico Rivers in Washington, NC with his wife, Christy, his stepson, Danny, and their kitten, Obi.

Click HERE for the link to a collection of John's poetry on ConnotationPress.com

To read more 1/2 Dozens by novelists, essayists, poets,
short story writers, and agents, click on the below.

Laurie Foos

Susan Henderson

Chantel Acevedo

Caroline Leavitt

Danica Novgorodoff

Rebecca Rasmussen

Laurel Snyder

Tatjana Soli

Julie Buxbaum

Randy Susan Meyers

John McNally

Justin Manask (agent)

Melissa Senate

Steve Kistulentz

Christopher Schelling (agent)

Dani Shapiro

Jeff VanderMeer

Catherine McKenzie

Emily Rapp

Stephanie Cowell

Elizabeth Stuckey-French

Paul Elwork

William Lychack

Leah Stewart

Michelle Herman

Lise Haines

Benjamin Percy

Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Karen Salyer McElmurray

Kim MacQueen

Crystal Wilkinson

Michael Griffith

Laura Dave



An Open Letter to Male Professors who Repeatedly Mistake the Student Population for their own Personal Dating Pool.

When the Anthony Weiner scandal hit and The New York Times ran its piece "When It Comes to Scandals, Girls Won't Be Boys," I'd already written this open letter (see below). In fact, it had been sitting for months.

My first hesitation was that people would want to point fingers -- as if I'm talking to one person or another. I'm not. I'm not even talking about my own institution. This is a subject that comes up when women get together in academic circles from across disciplines in academe, in general. In some colleges and universities, dating students will get you fired. Period. In others, not. In any case, it's an age-old issue. And mainly my perspective on it has been shaped by my childhood -- having grown up in a college town.

My second hesitation was that there are so many wonderful, dedicated, upright male professors out there. But I've decided this is all the more reason to fire away. The bad ones erode the reputation of all the good ones. (Aren't you fellas fed up too?)

The article in The New York Times begins, "There was a collective rolling of the eyes and a distinct sense of 'Here we go again' among the women of the House of Representatives last week when yet another male politician..."

I understand this eye-rolling -- and with a daughter starting to shop for college, my eye-rolling has turned to sharp glares.

It goes on to explain, "Research points to a substantial gender gap in the way women and men approach running for office...." (Also true of professors?) “...'The shorthand of it is that women run for office to do something, and men run for office to be somebody,' said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

This seemed to point to the underpinnings of my open letter -- this "to be somebody," someone with power. What's lacking in this person who needs to be somebody as opposed to doing something -- accomplishing something? Can we -- across job descriptions and societal roles -- collectively send a message that we're tired of it? Or maybe just one by one, we can state our complaints to the Weiners of America?

Here's mine.

Dear Male Professors who Repeatedly Mistake the Student Population for their own Personal Dating Pool:

I don't respect you. How can I? Listen, I come by my disgust naturally, though. I was raised to dislike you. I grew up in a non-academic household in an academic town. My mother was friends with the wives of professors. They confessed to her, and my mother confessed those secrets to me. She shouldn't have -- not so young -- but she did because they were cautionary tales about pompous men who cheat on their wives. (One of the stories is so dark I can't even whisper it here.) I knew their children. I watched those families soldier on -- with and without their fathers.

I met up with you in college. I'll never forget the professor who asked me out while I was handing in a test. The timing was expert. I said, "Huh, yeah, maybe." And the professor who took me under his wing and told me great things about my talent, but when I heard that he'd asked out another young female writer in his classes, all of those compliments -- true or false -- no longer mattered. It all washed away.

In other words, what you have to say means nothing. If a prof with a rep says something positive, the student can assume you want something. If negative or indifferent, the student can assume they're just not your type.

(And I'm not talking about love here. I'm not directing this at professors who once fell in love, entered into a committed relationship a grad student (marriage, for example), and now have a strong partnership among equals. I'm talking about an abuse of power. I'm talking about repeat offenders. We all know the difference. And those bold enough to say, What about women professors who wield their power this way? See: sex scandals involving female politicians versus male politicians, and then just sit down. Still and all, if you've made this dating pool mistake repeatedly and you're a woman then here's my blanket statement: ditto to all of this.)

In the modern era, it's shocking that your breed still exists. You'd think the stereotypes would have worn too thin even for you to take yourself seriously. But there you are. You persist. Sometimes I wonder if you think we sit around and marvel at your animal magnetism, if you think we secretly wonder at your uber coolness, that we whisper, "What a lady's man!"

We don't.

We think, how sad. We think, if only we could go back in time and make him popular in high school -- if we could make that second-chair clarinetist from marching band fall for you or at least not laugh in your face -- we're not even shooting for head cheerleader here -- if we could go back and make your youth just a little less desperate then maybe you wouldn't need to act this out now.

Please stop acting this out now.

I beg you -- because in addition to the incredible violation of trust of using the student population as a dating pool; in addition to eroding your own reputation and making a joke of yourself; in addition to reinforcing the stereotype that makes us all look bad; you depress us.

I think that's it. I think I'm done.


Sincerely (and I mean that),

Julianna Baggott

A 1/2 Dozen for Karen Essex

A 1/2 Dozen with novelist

(and former film executive
and current Londoner)

Karen Essex

who talks about research,
insane asylums,
and Stoker.

Here goes:

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

London! I moved here temporarily to research Dracula in Love because I wanted to breathe in the atmosphere of late Victorian England, which is very much alive in this city, and I never left! After so many years of living in Los Angeles, which represents everything new, I am having a great awakening living at the intersection of history, of which London has an immense amount, and the very multi-cultural, vital present. I am having the time of my life simply immersing myself in London's many aspects and hope to write about my personal experience here too.

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

I'd read Bram Stoker's Dracula when I was fifteen years old, and even at that time, I was sure that the character Mina Harker was dissatisfied with her role as the passive, cooperative Victorian virgin. Then, several decades later, strangely—inexplicably—I was sitting at my computer one night staring into space and the thought popped into my brain. What if I retell the original Dracula myth from Mina Harker's perspective? The idea just descended on me. Now that said, I had my "vampire epiphany" long ago. I used to race home from grade school on my bike to catch "Dark Shadows" on TV. I grew up in a family of spooky women in New Orleans, which is a haunted city, . I adored Anne Rice's books, and then later, as a screenwriter, adapted Rice's The Mummy or Ramses the Damned for James Cameron and 20th Century Fox (sadly, the film remains unmade!). So while the idea seemingly just "occurred" to me, I have loved vampire lore for a very long time, and moreover, my novels retell the stories of women in history in an empowering way. So empowering the vampire's "victim" was a natural for me.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

This will sound childish and hubristic but when I read a horrible review, I always picture the person who wrote it as morbidly obese and sexually frustrated. I also tell myself that this poor creature, who is generally lambasting me on some point on which they are entirely wrong, usually an historical detail, is not smart enough to understand the complexity of my book or its higher themes. The truth is—and every writer no matter how successful will attest to this—criticism always hurts. It's important to revel in the good comments and minimize thinking on the bad.

As far as criticism from the people who support me, such as my agent and my editor, I put my faith in these folks, and I try very hard to listen carefully to their comments. I don't blindly take every suggestion, but I do put my ego aside and try to objectively consider and address everything they bring up. Writers are buried so deeply in the minutia of our stories that we often cannot see the big picture.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

Like almost every writer throughout history, I was a child who loved to read. My parents used to call me for dinner 100 times before I actually heard their voices because I was so engrossed in a book. "She's come back from the planet Venus," they'd say when I finally showed up at the table. Also, my early years were spent in my grandmother's kitchen, where she, her sister, and their mother, my amazing great-grandmother, told stories all day long while they cooked for the family and for the men who worked in my grandfather's barbershop. They did not censor for the ears of a child, so it was a very rich experience, and I believe, the reason I am a writer today.

The Dracula in Love video tells the whole story of how my childhood influenced my tastes and the writing of Dracula in Love, so please take a look! (See all links below.)

Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

I love research almost as much as I love writing, which is a good thing because research and historical fiction are symbiotic. The most harrowing research I have done was in the archives of Victorian mental hospitals, reading the accounts of the really bizarre treatments given to women in the early days of psychiatry to help "settle them down." A good chunk of Bram Stoker's Dracula takes place in an insane asylum. I wanted to use the same setting in my novel but portray the asylum as it actually was at the time—full of women incarcerated for having what we today would consider normal sexual activity. My conceit for Dracula in Love was that women in the 1890s had a lot more to fear from their own culture than from vampires! I am told that the scariest parts of the book take place in the asylum scenes, which were recreated from painstaking research. People always say to me, "You must have made that stuff up!" But no, everything that happened in those scenes is based on reality. Research will always demonstrate that truth is greater than fiction.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

My first career was as a film executive in Hollywood. I am ever grateful that I worked in a real business, albeit a creative one, before I quit and dedicated myself entirely to writing. I write literary novels and have never written anything "for the money," but from day one, I approached writing with an eye to publishing and to earning my income through the endeavor. Publishing is a business and many writers fail to understand that, which is why many writers fail to publish, or fail to maintain a career as a writer once they are published. I took my "career" as a writer as seriously as I took my career as an executive, which meant learning the mechanics of the industry along with learning the mechanics of the craft. I knew that I had to invest in my writing on every level, including the financial. I made great financial sacrifices for my writing but I considered it an investment in my future, or my "business." Anyone who thinks that publishing is not a business, or that good writers do not think of it that way, is very naive.


Karen Essex is the author of five acclaimed historical novels, including the national and international bestseller, LEONARDO'S SWANS. Her latest novel, DRACULA IN LOVE, retells the story from the perspective of Mina Harker, the vampire's eternal muse, turning the original tale inside out and exposing the shocking truths that could not be told in the Victorian era. She lives and works in London and Los Angeles.

"An intensely erotic story of romance and obsession...Lusciously sexy and outrageously chilling by turns."—The New Jersey Star-Ledger

“Required reading. Essex retells Stoker’s Dracula entirely from heroine Mina Harker’s point of view…meeting the ubervampire face to face, not to mention fang to neck.”–New York Post


Watch the DRACULA IN LOVE book trailer by clicking HERE

Visit the DRACULA IN LOVE Facebook page HERE

Don't forget to follow Karen on Twitter: @KarenEssex


To read more 1/2 Dozens by novelists, essayists, poets,
short story writers, and agents, click on the below.

Laurie Foos

Susan Henderson

Chantel Acevedo

Caroline Leavitt

Danica Novgorodoff

Rebecca Rasmussen

Laurel Snyder

Tatjana Soli

Julie Buxbaum

Randy Susan Meyers

John McNally

Justin Manask (agent)

Melissa Senate

Steve Kistulentz

Christopher Schelling (agent)

Dani Shapiro

Jeff VanderMeer

Catherine McKenzie

Emily Rapp

Stephanie Cowell

Elizabeth Stuckey-French

Paul Elwork

William Lychack

Leah Stewart

Michelle Herman

Lise Haines

Benjamin Percy

Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Karen Salyer McElmurray

Kim MacQueen

Crystal Wilkinson

Michael Griffith

Laura Dave

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Swastika in The Jungle Book -- Free on the iPad -- What?

Dave scans the great read aloud list for 4 year old over at Melissa Wiley's blog. He tells me he's going to read aloud The Jungle Book to Oatsie. I come in later and they're finishing up some tales from Pooh.

"What happened to The Jungle Book?" I asked later.

"Well, I was kind of put off by the swastika frankly -- on the opening page."

Some of you might be saying, "Oh, please. The old Kipling and the Swastika story -- if I've heard it once I've heard it a million times," especially your librarians, your media specialists, your Kid-Lit Literati. Alas, I had no idea what he was talking about.

"Was Kipling a Nazi sympathizer?" I mean, yes, The Jungle Book movie always hit that racists chord but Nazis? I had to know -- at that exact moment.

I googled Kipling's swastika and much to my relief, I found this:

From Wikipedia:
"Many older editions of Rudyard Kipling's books have a swastika printed on their covers associated with a picture of an elephant carrying a lotus flower." [Dave did not mention said elephant and lotus flower. Swastikas can be very distracting, howeve.] "Since the 1930s this has raised the possibility of Kipling being mistaken for a Nazi-sympathiser, though the Nazi party did not adopt the swastika until 1920. Kipling's use of the swastika was based on the Indian sun symbol conferring good luck and well-being; the word derived from the Sanskrit word svastika meaning 'auspicious object'. He used the swastika symbol in both right- and left-facing orientations, and it was in general use at the time.[64][65] Even before the Nazis came to power, Kipling ordered the engraver to remove it from the printing block so that he should not be thought of as supporting them. Less than one year before his death Kipling gave a speech (titled "An Undefended Island") to The Royal Society of St George on 6 May 1935 warning of the danger Nazi Germany posed to the UK."

And there you have it. Once less set of Nazi ties to a children's book author that I have to worry about.

Read on, my friends to your various 4-year-olds -- or, you know, try to.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

How to Build a Bill Baggott in 12 Not-so-Easy Steps

(On the Occasion of Father's Day)

1. Raise the boy among women.
Born in Brooklyn, mostly raised in the mountains of West Virginia, my father's childhood fear was being an orphan. His father died when he was five -- when my father became a stutterer -- and he was raised among women -- his mother, his old-maid aunt, and two sisters. I've decided this might be the best way a man of his generation could be raised.

This will make him sweet. He'll cry throughout your childhood -- acts of bravery will set him off but also The Parent Trap, starring Lindsey Lohan. In the 80s, he'll be the only corporate lawyer in sensitivity training who loves it.

2. Give him some mountains and uranium tank-fields to play in. Let him grow up amongst coalminers and glassblowers without any money.

He'll learn how to sneak into things without paying -- a habit. He'll be the corporate lawyer shuttling his kids into a football game through a break in the chainlink fence.

3. Make it inevitable that he gets punched in high school for being a know it all. (He should also date triplets -- at least two of the three -- and play trumpet.)

This will inform the dining room where you grow up, where you'll learn to argue. The dining room table, your brother will later say, I learned more there than in all my years of school.

And one day the know-it-all will be the lead researcher for his youngest daughter who starts writing novels that entail nanotechnology and Domes and airships and all the things he liked dreaming about as a kid. It'll be something that ties them together -- almost daily -- where science meets dreaminess.

4. Get his college paid for in part by the military -- his father died of a head injury in a jeep accident (he might have been drunk) -- and in part by his father's men's club, who help pay for the educations of their fallen friends -- which, ironically his father joined because it was the only place to drink in town.

5. Have him fall in love with a redhead and marry her and have kids -- and always want more kids.

He'll be mistaken for a pediatrician a lot. He'll be the guy on the plane who offers to walk the screaming baby in the aisles so the mother flying alone can eat. (Through all of his grandchildren, he'll become known as the baby whisperer. No one can get a baby to quiet like he can.) He'll be able to take over the household of a family with five kids and run it smoothly while the parents are away. He's the one to call when the baby is sick and has to go in for an operation.

And when he holds his firstborn at 23, he should think, "If I died now, I'd have gotten more than my share."

6. Have him push through a 5 year engineering program in 3 years then law school. First real job -- patent office in DC -- during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Just plop him down at ground zero. Eventually, he should get political. He should take to the streets, protesting wars, with a baby in a stroller and eventually carrying one of his grandkids. When his father in law gives him a German lugger as a gift, he'll take it home and dismantle it, hiding the parts in different places. He was once chased through the woods as kid by cops -- with their guns pulled.

7. In the National Guard, he should talk a man out of killing his wife. On a trip to Iran, he should save someone from choking.

8. Oh, and make him practice cheapness. He should make a lot of money -- but the youngest (who's kind of an idiot in her way) should think the family is so poor she can't bring herself to really fill out a Christmas list. Then have her at 16 drive with her Dad to work in his Ford Escort, missing second gear, and his underling should pull up in a Jag. Your father with his Velcro briefcase --God bless him -- has money. He's only really paid for two things freely: education and travel -- wait. One more, theater...

9. Have him write down every play he's ever seen on an index card held by a rubberband -- stacks and stacks.

And speaking of the arts, he should go through a yoga face -- in his underwear in the livingroom. And whenever his youngest daughter comes home from dance lessons, he should have her teach him the moves. He should be able to moonwalk pretty well, and he'll teach her the jitterbug in the kitchen. And, when he's retired, he'll learn to fly planes, self-diagnose a rare blood disorder, and take up modern dance in the Berkshires.

10. Have him search for his past -- all the way back to a dock in Chestertown, Maryland where his ancestor, a prisoner, was auctioned off. (He should get an Irish passport -- get a piece of that citizenship back.)

11. Have him sign off to raise all of the kids Catholic -- which he attends weekly, never taking Communion -- but have him answer the kids' questions honestly, what amounts to a small rebellion, a list of protests.

12. When his mother is in a nursing home, he'll visit every night and feed her dinner, spooning in each bite -- long after she's stopped recognizing him. He'll put her favorite old songs on a little tape recorder and she'll sing. Even in light of a 50 year marriage to that redhead and the four kids and the 13 grandchildren, this is where he'll teach the most important lessons about love and devotion. And one day when he's watching a movie with his youngest and a little boy shines a mirror's reflected light on the wall to entertain the old man in bed, he'll say, "You'll do that for me one day." And the youngest will say, "Yes."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Why I'm Afraid of Writers (a Breadloaf Example)

I went to Breadloaf Writers Conference in 2000. I hadn't been around other writers for about six years -- since the end of grad school. I was married to one, yes, but we were busy. For one thing, we'd had three kids in those six years. I brought my husband and kids to Breadloaf with me. I was there as a scholar. We stayed off-campus in a desolate house with a vine growing through the floorboards in the bathroom.

I imagined Breadloaf was going to feel like home. I was going to be among my own kind. I felt odd in suburbia -- an imposter. I rarely told people that I was writing, but I'd had to come clean that past year. My first novel and my first collection of poems were going to be published that coming winter, within a month of each other. Moreover, I'd been obsessed those six years -- still writing, squirreling away time, writing through blind fatigue. I wanted to be with people who understood that hunger.

Instead, Breadloaf was a shock to my system. I found some friends, yes, but I was terrified by the frenetic energy. I observe people but found myself in a sea of observers -- sharp ones. I was there as a poet, but was struggling to identify as a writer at all. I was a fraud in suburbia but I was also one here.

I went home the first night and didn't sleep. The second I got about an hour. The third maybe two. I paced the rooms. I ran my hands along the wood paneling. I sat on the edge of the bed, listening to Dave sleep. And I was terrified. I was coming to understand that I was a freak among freaks. I wasn't at home among writers -- not at all. Some were cruel. Others stared through me, bored before I even spoke. I liked Olena Kalytiak Davis. She said very little and gravitated to my youngest. She walked him around the cafeteria, introducing him to everyone.

(I remember meeting Komunyakaa -- I had the kids come to hear him read, will never forget the line "let the devil beat your head like a drum." -- and Reetika Varazani -- newly pregnant. Three years later, she and the child would be gone. Amanda Davis was there too. She, too, would die in three years, plane crash.)

My antidote was what it's become. I fell into the work itself. I was there to learn something and that's where I poured my efforts. Michael Collier, my workshop leader and director of the conference, told me that I'd probably abandon poetry. It was often what happened when someone wrote both fiction and poetry. I haven't yet -- in large part because I'm contrary. I explained my process, told him I knew my opening lines and often my closing image. He seemed to think this wasn't a good idea. He told me to try not to know where I was headed. I went home and wrote as blindly as I could -- bad poems -- and learned that my process isn't fixed on where I'm headed but how I'm going to get there -- and that works for me. I learned to embrace it by first trying to shrug it off.

All in all, conferences throughout my life have been really important to me, and I've attended many now -- on the faculty side. I tend to cling to the workshop itself, what happens over the course of a few days or over a week can be completely transforming -- the right collection of people in discussion, focused on the work at hand. I'm still very wary -- and maybe growing more wary -- of those times when the faculty is supposed to be free just to be with each other. The after hours part. I'm not good at that. And I'm pretty sure that I never will be.

Eleven years later, I know a lot of writers well enough that they're honest and raw and open with me as I am with them. And I understand the podium. Behind a podium, I know what's expected of me. But put me in a room of writers and there's probably no time in my life -- except for pure grief -- when I feel the inadequacy of language more keenly. There we are. There's food and drink. There are conversations to have. There's banter. This one tells a story. This one tells another.

But it all feels like a waste of time. I can't help feeling like there's something we should be telling each other -- about what? These lifelong relationships we have with the page. This longing. This need. Isn't this where we should make our confessions to people who'll understand? Confess what exactly?

This is what we don't talk about -- or, at least, I haven't found the language for it -- not enough to dig at it, to push through to why ... why do we do this?

What is there to say? It's hard. We push through it. We try to continue.