Friday, December 21, 2012

1/2 Dozen with Joy Ladin

What an honor it is to share this Q and A with Joy Ladin, award-winning poet and memoirist. She writes of the importance of placelessness, of God, of the belittling effects of T.S. Eliot, and gives one of the best damn speeches about what poetry should aspire to do... 

She's here to kindle our lives a little... 

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

I am a writer of placelessness. In many of my poems – too many – abstracted distance from the specifics of existence, from place or being placed, is the “main character.” This placelessness reflects my often-tortured and always complicated relationship to my body (which is after all the part of us that is “placed”).

I've done some work on how literature creates a sense of time and space (what my favorite literary theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, calls a “chronotope”). My poems usually have so many time indicators and so few space indicators that they seem to take place in no place at all – which is also the way I would describe most of my life, due to the dissociation caused by gender dysphoria and living as someone I knew I wasn't.

While most people seem more in touch with place than I am, I think placelessness is an important state to most of us, even those who visit occasionally rather than live there. Emily Dickinson's most probing examinations of human anguish and trauma are placeless; by contrast, her ecstatic poems are often gorgeously rich in place-defining description. In general, the thinkier the poem, the more poetry reflects on rather than describes instances of existence, the more placeless it will be. One of the ways I think about my transition from living as a man to living as a woman is as attempt to move from a disembodied sense of haunting rather than inhabiting my life, to being placed within life and really be present in the places I find myself. Like every aspect of me, it's a work in progress, and I've been frustrated with how difficult I find it to write more place-specific poetry.

Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?

I am definitely religious. I perceive my life, and all life, as coming from and being sustained by God, and I am a practicing Jew. However, I wouldn't describe myself as a person of faith. God for me is a given of existence, not something I have to believe in. (By contrast, I rarely see my self as a given of existence – I am something I have to believe in, imagine, commit to as trajectory rather than settled fact.) My sense of God is explicit in many poems (particularly my book Psalms); at one point, I had to stop myself from using the word “God” in my poetry, to make room for other things to happen.

My sense of God has also shaped my poetry more generally. I don't see the world as given, I see it as a kaleidoscopic whirl of intersecting processes. That would terrify me, if I didn't have a sense of God as the root and container of it all. My sense of God means that even when I write about the hardest, most unjust or excruciating aspects of existence (subjects as irresistible to me as potato chips), I don't imagine, as, say, Philip Larkin does, that existence is meaningless. I often can't find the meaning, but the way I write assumes that all of this means something, because all of it comes from and returns to God. That's why so many of my poems express what Robert Hass, writing of Issa's haiku, calls “monotheistic rage,” rage at the inhumanity of human existence. There's no point in raging at random quantum fluctuations, or entropic processes: I rage because for me, there is always someone there, knowing, feeling, listening: God.

People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you.

Though I was mostly shaped as a young writer by writers I loved and envied, there was a kind of poetry that drove me up a wall: poetry that brilliantly, virtuousically, performed meaninglessness, pointlessness, emptiness. It seemed (and still seems) to me that poetry is about creating meaning in a world in which meaning is in short supply, and in which meanings are constantly degenerating into cliches, fashions, empty performances, sarcastic asides. For a poet to use poetry to undermine the vitality of meaning is to me a monstrous perversion of the sacred power of poetry. However, it's fun to write those kinds of poems, and I do myself sometimes, because some kinds of experiments with language are only possible when very little meaning is at stake. I try to recognize these poems for what they are, and either push them further, into meaning, or relegate them to the discard pile. To the extent that the poems I hate enable me to recognize these tendencies in my own work, they have been among my most useful teachers.

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

No. Life always seems to be too much or too little – sometimes both at once – and after many years of insisting that I could only write under certain conditions, I realized that I would have to accept that writing is part of life's tossing and turning. Having children taught me that – if I couldn't write while holding a fussy baby at 4 am, I couldn't write. Lately my life is very full in other ways, and I'm finding myself wondering if there are ways of giving poetry more pride of place within it. So far, my attempts have centered on carrying around small notebooks and trying to write poetry (or stuff that wishes it were poetry) while on public transportation or in waiting rooms or what have you. This has liberated me from being too conscious about my writing, but I'm not sure how much this process will yield in terms of viable poems, and in terms of growth as a poet. One plus, though, is that since I'm often looking out a window, I find myself writing more “placed” poetry than I otherwise do.

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

I love writing, and I tend to fall in love with whatever I've written. But when I dig down and commit to a poem, I have to fall out of love with it, and find ways to be honest and tough-minded without becoming so hostile to a draft's shortcomings that I crush the life out of it. (The “Godzilla-meets-Bambi” school of revision.) That kind of critical self-hatred is driven by a wish to be perfect – and laziness. It's easier to perfectly loathe imperfect poetry than to write and finish a great poem. But poetry isn't about perfection; it's about vitality, about using language to create more vivid, honest, ample, imaginative, relations to life. I am still learning, every time I revise, how to bring my poems to that kind of finish, and how to engage in a process in which the poem and I give life to one another, rather than engaging in a fight to the death.

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

I worked for a decade at The State Bar of California between college and graduate school. I considered myself a poet who was supporting myself by doing office work, and in an odd way, whatever work I did, I did as a poet. Not that I did it “poetically,” whatever that might mean. (What does poetic xeroxing look like?) But I was always acutely conscious that I was doing the intensely prosaic work of a world to which poetry meant – nothing. None of my co-workers knew or cared about poetry, even though many were quite educated. Some would back away slightly when I told them I was a poet. To them, poetry, even the greatest poetry, was irrelevant, useless, meaningless. Worse yet, poetry, they had been taught, was something they couldn't understand even if they wanted to; a poem was an IQ test that would prove that they were stupid. I called this the T.S. Eliot effect, because Eliot made quite a good living as a poet of intimidation, whose success proved to many in the early and mid-twentieth century that poetry was an elite, obscure medium. Reading poetry, then, was a way of being looked down on.

Those ten years resulted in an intense commitment to write poetry which didn't make people feel stupid, poetry that would sing and ring emotionally even when it had no clear prose meaning, poetry that wouldn't condescend, that was written as a person among people, poetry that wished to be meaningful to someone, to help them feel more alive. I'm not sure how often I've achieved those goals; I'm not sure how viable they are in an American culture to which poetry is largely irrelevant. But they remain important to me, because they remind me that writing poetry is an expression of the kind of person I want to be, the person I wish I were, the possibilities I wish to create in and through language, the connections I wish to foster. I want my poems to be the best of me, and I want them to be better than me, smarter, more compassionate, tougher, more honest, more embracing, more forgiving, determined at all costs to live, and kindle others' lives.

Joy Ladin is the author of six books of poetry: newly published The Definition of Joy, Lambda Literary Award finalist Transmigration, Forward Fives award winner Coming to Life, Alternatives to History and The Book of Anna, (all from Sheep Meadow Press), and Psalms (Wipf & Stock). Her memoir of gender transition, Through the Door of Life:  A Jewish Journey Between Genders, was published by University of Wisconsin Press in March. Her work has appeared in many periodicals, including American Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Southwest Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American Review, and has been recognized with a Fulbright Scholarship. She holds the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Stern College of Yeshiva University, and has also taught in the Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence College, Princeton University, Tel Aviv University (as Fulbright Poet-in-Residence), Reed College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.    

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Warning: Bragging will follow.

I'm going to brag, and I'm not going to couch this one. My oldest daughter graduates a semester early from high school this month with a perfect 4.0; she was #1 in her class until our move when she decided to finish online. The perfect GPA isn't what I'm proud of though. I'm proud because of what she had to overcome -- reading disabilities, tracking issues, dyslexia. I'm proud because it took her three times longer than most to do each assignment. I'm proud because of her incredible determination, her fierce competitive nature, her focus and drive. I'm proud of her because it was so brutally hard. (And I'm proud of her obsessive note-taking that she turned into a hand stitched paper dress.) I know the long nights and the anxiety and the toughness. She kept pushing. She never gave up.
To all her teachers out there, thank you. Teaching her to read was like trying to teach someone to read a quickly moving brook -- with small whirlpools and eddies. You've had so much patience and shared in the joys.
I am so damn proud and it's one of my favorite kinds of pride -- I'm proud of her because of what wasn't given, but what was earned.
Here's my post "Sixteen Years Ago Today, I Gave Birth to a Bad Ass," in case you want a little more.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Share Some Joy, People!

This year, our kids are getting a giving budget (from me and Dave) and a list of charities to choose from . (We're checking out the most efficient charities without fat salaries and where dollars go to those in need...) 
AND ... here's a great one -- that's absolutely free, that gets your kids into the spirit of giving and habit of doing good. Basically you sign up to give or serve others, and Hasbro gets toys to kids in under-served communities. Share some joy, people.  
(Thank you to Concetta Anne Bencivenga -- for doing that thing you do.)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Shut up and buy books for the holidays!

Debut novelist Amber Dermont, author of the stunning novel THE STARBOARD SEA, a New York Times Notable Book of 2012, weighs in with three book picks for picky types.

1. For the person who cares about equal rights and true love: Double Life: A Love Story from Broadway to Hollywood by Alan Shayne and Norman Sunshine

2. For the person who loves beautifully written novels and dreamy storytelling: He Sleeps by Reginald McKnight

3. For the person who enjoys kickass poetry: TheHistory of Anonymity by Jennifer Chang

After Watching the Film LINCOLN, I Think Again About Mary Todd

I wrote "Mary Todd on her Deathbed" many years ago. It was a very early poem of mine, my first to be picked up for the Best American Poetry series (chosen by Rita Dove), later performed at Symphony Space in New York, and reprinted by Ta-Nehisi Coates for his Atlantic Monthly blog. It's now included in my collection of poems written in women's voices, Lizzie Borden in Love.

Written in the voice of Mary Todd Lincoln at the end of her life, the poem addresses her time in an insane asylum, her paranoia, her stealing, her fear of poverty, her love of her dead husband -- I touch on their sex life -- and her love of her children. 

In the scene between Sally Field, as Mary Todd, and Tommy Lee Jones, as Stevens, her finances were brought up. Mary Todd loved fine things and was known for overspending, but this goes back to her childhood, I believe, the loss of her mother and being raised by her stepmother. I nod to this in the final line about her having to make her own hoop skirt as a young woman.

What fascinated me about the research and the scene I would have shoved into the end of the film is after the death of Lincoln -- how they opened the White House to mourners, while Mary Todd herself was still mourning. I write about his open coffin in this poem... 

I have great sympathy for Mary Todd. I thought that the film's portrayal was generous. She was a complex human being. 

Mary Todd on her Deathbed

I can hear them, choking on spoons, screaming
in shower stalls; the fat are given only
a raw egg and whiskey
                      and those who refuse
to eat are force-fed. The least crazy sing,
picking scalp scabs in window seats.
One woman finds scissors
                         and stabs herself
again and again. It was the tireless Jew
who wore me down; no one believed
that he followed me
                    from train to train
with his satchel of poisons, sneering
as they searched my baggage
for the stolen hotel foot stools, how he knew                
that I shuffled because my petticoats,                                                    
stitched so tight with money,
                              had become a heavy net
for dredging the lost. And I do not speak of the lost:
Abe could have worn me as a boutonniere,
my pinched face, say it: an ugly plump bud,
hoisted skirts and petticoats
                              the leaf and ribbon trim.
I remember the hoisted skirts,
how his body seemed
                    a long white country of its own.
But it was owned by a country
of citizens as unruly as my dead boys,
my dead boys
             roaring through the White House.
Nothing was mine, after all. Strangers
crowded his open coffin, snipped souvenirs
from the curtains,
                   slipped hands
into the casket to unclip his cufflinks.
All the while, they could hear me
                                   wailing from bed.
Every day I can move slightly less;
each body hinge becomes more stubborn
                                      than memory.
I know how I will die: a clenched jaw,
fists gripping bed sheets. Stiff with longing,
I will have to break
                     into heaven, the willows
in my handmade girlhood hoop-skirt snapping.

From Lizzie Borden in Love

Monday, November 26, 2012

1/2 Dozen with Victoria Barrett, Editor and Publisher of Engine Books

 Victoria Barrett, editor and publisher of Engine Books, a boutique fiction press, is here to answer a 1/2 dozen questions, giving an insider's look at what editors are searching for, insights into the industry, and a glimpse into the life of an editor who's also a writer and married to a writer.

What do you always look for in a manuscript?

In a novel manuscript, I need to be able to really see the story; I know I might be the right editor for a book if, as I read it, the rhythms of its language and the emotional drive that the author intended resonate in my head. By no means do I look for perfection. Instead, I have to be able to imagine right away how I will help the author bring the entirety of the whole up to the level of its very best parts. So if it's got a few wobbly chapters, that's fine, as long as I can clearly see the author's vision and think concretely about ways to get the book closer to that vision. (I'm guessing about that vision on a first read, but for the books I've edited, I've begun my work with the authors by trying to explain their vision back to them--so far, this has worked out, and has been the beginning of the collaborative editing process.)

More concretely, I have to care about the characters and perceive enough dramatic tension to keep turning the pages. 

For a story collection, I look for a unified, complete book. What that means varies--a lot--from book to book. But what I see most often is a bunch of really good stories that don't fit well together, either because they're too similar in style or theme, so the themes of the book are repeating themselves, or so vastly different from one another that they can't be parts of the same unified narrative arc. By that I don't mean that I have a preference for linked stories--I don't, actually, and often find the linkages forced--but every book of fiction has a narrative arc, even if that arc progresses more in spirit than in subject matter or theme. 
You're a writer. How do you balance editor and writer roles?

For as long as I can remember, I have been moved by an internal drive to make stuff. I remember, the summer I turned 10, spending a week at my grandmother's house, bored to death, raiding her quilting scraps and stitching Barbie outfits from her leftovers. That drive is consistent and palpable; it almost feels like anxiety, but with a direction, rather than the nauseating vague gitchiness of regular anxiety. I garden, sew, cook. My husband Andrew Scott and I remodeled our entire house ourselves, with just the smallest bit of contractor help (gas lines, etc). Writing is a product of that drive for me, fed by my endless childhood (adulthood, too) appetite for books. 

Editing is a completely different activity, and I think I'm probably better at it than I am at writing. It's much more akin to falling deeply into a book that you love. When I'm editing, I'm positioning myself as a reader in the hands of a writer--I'm recognizing someone else's vision and working in the service of that vision--not as a creator or author. I certainly draw on my writerly affection for language and storytelling. But editing happens in an entirely different cognitive framework than writing for me. 

How I balance the time is another story entirely. Running Engine Books has been a constant, ongoing education in all areas, but perhaps the biggest lesson has been the amount of time this work takes. I also teach full time, and there have been weeks when I didn't think it was going to be possible to do what needed to be done, without even trying to work on my own writing. But I've never been an every-day writer. When I try to write every day, the work becomes forced and unappealing, and although we all tell ourselves (and our students) that it's perfectly fine to write badly in a first draft, I can't quite do it. Nothing discourages me more than looking back at my own work and seeing flat language, bloated scenes, dull dialogue. I am much more likely to finish a story or chapter if I've been away from it than if I've forced myself to work on it and written something that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And because I'm pretty easily discouraged anyway, this becomes a useful excuse for not writing every day. The writing is going to come when that internal drive kicks on, though. It's going to happen if it means I don't sleep. It's not the same thing as waiting for some mysterious inspiration, which I kind of don't believe in anyway. It's a matter of recognizing my own mental and emotional states and working within them. I do as much as I can to encourage that drive to take over on a regular basis. But a bad writing day is much, much worse for me than a not-writing day, so the time factor is not as significant as it might be for someone with a more consistent, stable process. I'm most successful at cultivating that writerly drive when I'm able to do so outdoors. We've got great porch chairs, and a comfy outdoor sofa on the back deck. Last summer I finished the novel I've been working on for years, and am now starting the agent search, so the work: it gets done.

You're married to a writer too. What advice do you have for writerly couples just starting out?

Read together, and permit one another to disagree when you talk about the books. Don't waste time trying to convince your partner that you're seeing the book more accurately or more clearly than s/he is--have those conversations regularly, and make them a learning process. In this way, you're both educating one another and practicing for when you give each other feedback on your work. 

People say not to be competitive, but I don't know if that's possible. Andrew and I are not identical writers in style or ambition, so that helps, since we're not frequently competing in specific contexts. But if I try to suppress the envy that rises up when he has a major accolade or accomplishment, it only gets worse. That envy coexists perfectly well with a much larger pride and thrill at those accomplishments, but it does exist. Have your minute of assholery, preferably when your partner is not present, when you're alone, then move on. 

I find this life a lot easier than a hypothetical one wherein I had not only to write, but to convince my partner that I was entitled to the time and space, both physical and mental, required to write. I'm sure it would be great to have your household funded by a trust-funder or brain surgeon or something, to be able to choose when to work jobs with salaries, but I'm fairly certain that wouldn't work for me, in part because I'm not entirely convinced myself that I deserve the time and space to write, so the burden of convincing someone else of it would probably halt the writing altogether. People ask Andrew and me--but me more often, it seems--how we can stand to be together all the time, since we live together, teach together, commute together, read one another's work, etc. My answer, which is true and serves nicely to reward their negativity and nosiness with shame, is to ask why I would have married him if I didn't want to spend all of my life with him. The near universal reply: "Oh." 
A recent release from Engine Books.
How has the rise of the ebook affected the industry?

As far as any of us can tell at this early date, ebooks have caused people to purchase and read more books. Ebook readers also buy more print books than they did before. Through that ease of acquisition--the automated nature of the download--ebooks seem to have reinforced existing appetites for books; through the purchasing of e-readers as gifts, they seem to have multiplied the number of appetites, as well. Most--but not all--of us agree that meeting those appetites, through whatever format, is the best way to get an author's work into as many readers' hands as possible. 

I attended a seminar recently that included some proprietary sales numbers; the outcome was the suggestion that as more publishers complete their backlist ebook offerings, ebook purchases versus print book purchases are leveling off--the taking over of market share isn't going to continue forever. The ebook is not going to eliminate the print book as a product or artifact. If anything, we might lose hardcovers at some point in the future, but that will happen because even avid readers don't value books enough to pay hardcover prices for them. 

That devaluing of literature is accelerated by arguments that ebooks should be cheaper than print books. It takes a special kind of ignorance to think that, when you buy a product, you're only paying for the object in your hands. When you purchase a product, you are paying for every step in the labor and supply chain of the creation of that product, and you are generally paying much, much for the labor than for the supplies. The vast majority of the labor of a book's creation is writing; a lesser but still significant component is editing. You are not paying for the printing and the paper. You are paying someone to create a story. The means of delivery of that story does not alter that labor cost in the least. (Incidentally, this is also an argument against the pricing tiers represented by hardcover releases.) Further, when you're talking about widely-read, popular paperbacks, the object in a reader's hands likely cost pennies to produce, absent the author's labor. If you care about books, and think that storytelling has value in our culture, don't argue for cheap ebooks; these arguments are one of the most significant impacts of ebooks on book culture, though I think they're widely dismissed (for obvious reasons) within the industry. 
Why editing? What drew you to the work?

At a base level, I suppose I was drawn to editing because I love books and I think the world needs more great ones. There are too many excellent books of fiction being passed over by the publishing establishment that deserve to be in readers' hands. I can't solve that problem, publishing four books a year, but I can contribute something small but meaningful to its solution. 

Through my work with Andrew at Freight Stories, and before that at Puerto del Sol during my MFA, I developed a strong affinity for editing shorter works. There's something incredibly seductive about seeing literature through to its end stage, a physical object you can hold in your hand. Nothing about writing scratches the itch to be done. But editing is the work of taking fiction out of the hands of a writer who has said, This is as done as I can get it on my own, and shepherding it into a more tangible form. (Obviously, some of the "publisher" functions are at play there, but since I do both, it can be hard to separate.)

I also believe--and this is going to sound bad--that it's morally wrong to recognize a talent in yourself and fail to put it to use, and I feel like I have a talent for this. It also lets me turn, in at least one case, a problem in my writing life into a solution in someone else's: One of my great deficits as a writer is my easily-influenced language use. When I read lyrical, voice-driven fiction, its influence shows up in my own work immediately. This turns out to be a great asset as an editor when I'm doing line-level work, because I find it relatively easy to immerse myself in the style of the book I'm editing, and to reinforce that style with suggestions. 

People say that editors don't edit anymore. Does that make sense to you? What's the bulk of the contemporary editor's job?
I hear this regularly from both established and emerging writers working with both large and small presses. It doesn't make much sense to me at small, nonprofit presses, which ought in terms of the nonprofit business structure to be mission driven, and which are often funded at least as heavily by grants as they are by sales. But in the massively corporate model of big publishing, it does make a kind of sense. I can see why those resources fall more heavily toward marketing; once you place publishing in a larger system that's designed to invent the widget once, then sell as many of the exact same widget as possible, it seems ridiculous to pay a labor force to invent brand new widgets all the time. Invention/R&D is hopelessly expensive, if your sole goal is to sell as much stuff as possible in order to put more money in your shareholders' pockets--shareholders who are probably invested in a parent company that has little or nothing to do with books in the first place. 

But we all know, once you get below a certain level in the mega-conglomerate organizational chart, that books aren't widgets. Our culture--or at least our rhetoric--appears to me to be moving increasingly toward placing value only on endeavors that create profit. Until/unless that changes, all of us who care about art will continue to fight an uphill battle, and for now, at least, it seems like old-school editing as an expected part of the process of making a book is a casualty in that battle.

The bulk of my job is the kind of editing people don't think happens anymore. Depending on who you talk to, I'm a relic. But without this kind of editing, the only books that make it into the world are books that are hatched perfect--in other words, a slim few of the books that deserve publication. I do the kind of editing I hope my own manuscripts will find. I only want my best work to make it out into the world. I want that for the Engine Books authors, too. 

Usually that means two or three rounds of edits: one for global stuff, perhaps another for chapter/scene level stuff, and a final line-edit. (At least two rounds of proofing happen later.) So that's a lot of the time and effort. 

I spend almost as much time reading manuscripts (and during some phases, probably more), the acquisition phase of editing (though I prefer the term selection). Most of the time, I read a full manuscript I've requested, even if I'm not immediately hooked, though as I receive more great queries I'm going to have to make harder decisions about that workload. 

And I suppose this returns to the why edit question, but I don't want that in-depth editing to die. It's another problem I can't solve, but, four times a year, I can make a little contribution to doing things the way I think they ought to be done.

In addition to being the editor and publisher of Engine Books, Victoria Barrett teaches at Ball State University, and lives in Irvington, a neighborhood in Indianapolis where the streets are named after writers, with her husband, Andrew Scott, and their two cats and one dog. A two-tone image of Washington Irving's floating head adorns the historic neighborhood sign on her front porch, the same porch where she recently completed her first novel, Four Points Gin.