Thursday, December 29, 2011

10 Resolutions That Will Make You a Better Writer in 2012

It’s resolution time, and, hokey as they may be, they can actually workyou have the support of the whole world, who is also trying to start fresh. If you’re reading this blog, you should be considering some writing-oriented resolutions. Below are 10 relatively easy steps you can resolve to take right now to make yourself a better writer in 2012. Now is the time!

10.  Take a class. Hold your horses. Before you start complaining that you have neither the time nor the money to take writing classes, let me offer you some ideas. You don’t have to commit to some kind of degree, first of all. A single class can reinvigorate your writing, and you’d be surprised how cheaply you can find one. As far as time goes, there are one-day seminars that absolutely everyone can squeeze in. If you can, however, squeeze in morea weekend retreat, a minimester, a full semester. The decision to take writing classes can mean anything from a couple of hours to a couple of years, so investigate what is possible for you. As with all goals, don’t trick yourself into not even trying because you set too impossible a goal. Just because you can’t do a two-year program doesn’t mean you can’t sign up for a weekend class. As to cost, a university class or a ritzy private seminar is not the only option. Community colleges are way cheaper, and sometimes even high schools have night classes even cheaper than that. Ask at the library, as well, to see if there are independently taught classes being offered. If not, there’s always Google! For the price of a week’s entertainment, you can have a class.

9. Join a group. Words must circulate. You can be a loner if you want, but it’s much easier to gauge how good your writing is when you hear back from others. You can also learn much from others’ triumphs and mistakes. Other writers provide not only feedback and experience, but support when you need encouragement or just a deadline to meet. Check your universities and libraries for existing groups, and if you can’t find one, start one! The ideal group size is about six people. Anything larger, and you can disappear, which is not what you want. But you can have a group of two or three just as well. Ideally, you can meet face-to-face, so you can see one another and go back and forth in discussion. Quite frankly, you can do about as well on Skype. In other words, there’s no excuse for you Emily Dickinsoning yourself.

A more in-depth guide to
this issue.
8. Carve out a writing space. This is a tricky issue. For one thing, don’t you dare use lack of space as an excuse for not writing. Shame on you! You can write anywhere. The only two things you need for sure are your brain and some kind of tool. If you’re not writing as much as you want because you don’t have “a room of your own,” or a desk, or a fancy computer, you’re just kidding yourself. First of all, what Virginia Woolf was talking about, more than a physical room, was psychic space. I’m not even going to get into that in this post, because that kind of trauma is something a little beyond quickie resolutions, and, moreover, beyond my expertise. If I ever figure out the social and individual psychology of writing, I’ll let you know. Meantime, these resolutions can get you a little of that psychic wellbeing you need to write better. What you don’t need, to get back to the point, is anything fancy. Basically, if you feel like you need specific space at all, anything will do. There are only two kinds of people: Starbucks people and Emily Dickinson. Starbucks people write at Starbucks. I don’t really like them or understand them, so suffice it to say that, if you’re one of them, resolve to spend X amount of time there, writing. You can also try your library, a park, or whatever public space works. You don’t need a laptop if you can’t afford one. The good thing about the library (as opposed to Starbucks) is that you can use their computers. However, good ole paper and pen will do. You don’t need Wi-Fi, either. Just figure out what you need, and get it.

The tools you'll need for
writing . . . .
But what if you’re an Emily Dickinson? If you’re blessed with a room, good for you. Don’t have a desk? Get one. Get a chair. This is not difficult. Your “writing room” is full of crap? Get a big blue bin and put the crap in it if the mess bothers you, or swipe it off the desk and let it fester on the floor if that’s your thing. The point is to write. Don’t have a room? Write in bed, like I do, on a laptop. Bad for your posture, but, have you ever met a writer with good posture? I do understand, especially if you live with others, the need to signal that you’re working and can’t be disturbed. Believe, me, I know. But if you can’t learn to deal with distractions, you have to find a way to carve that space or risk waiting for the perfect room to materialize the rest of your life. Throw out the skinny jeans that are never going to fit again and turn the closet into a writing room. Flush a wig down the toilet, tell everybody you can’t afford a plumber, and turn the bathroom into a writing room. Get an outdoor shed or some patio furniture and turn your outdoor space into a writing room. If all else fails, go write in your car. Trade it in for a van if you want more space.

Wondering how writers
use journals? Read this.
7. Keep a journal. Confronting your life regularly can do wonders for your writing. You don’t have to write very long entries, or every day (at least once a week, however). The important thing is that you take the time to write down, to literally explain to yourself, what you are doing. It’s really hard to say “I didn’t have time to write today,” for example, when you write down what you actually did: spent two hours watching a movie, fifteen minutes commenting on your friends’ drunken pictures on Facebook, and half an hour doing the dishes. Ditch the movies, ditch your friends, and get some paper plates or a dishwasher. You can do these things, but only if you realize where your time actually goes. A journal can help you keep track of the hours. If you didn’t meet your writing goal for a certain day or a certain week, explain. Confront your own psychology, and resolve to do better. Also, a journal keeps the writing muscle supple. Writing leads to more writing. A journal entry can be a very early draft of a poem or a story, if you write down things you thought or saw but “didn’t have time to write about.” On a day when you’re out of ideas, you can go back through your journal and find inspirationand material.

6. Work on specific writing goals.
Most of these resolutions can have the effect of helping you identify what you need to work on for your writing. Perhaps the class you take will teach you some new skill you need to perfect, or the writing group keeps pointing out that your poems lack form. Perhaps, in your journal, you notice that you’re constantly complaining that your dialogue sucks. You get the idea. Identify a set of writing goalsspecific craft issues like dialogue, or maybe prosody or grammarthat you need to work on, and resolve to address them one by one. Take a class, read a how-to book, do exercises, or just practice, practice, practice. But don’t avoid your writing gaps any longeridentify them and conquer them.

A great book on prosody.
5. Read craft books or essays. Whether you’ve taken dozens of classes or none, one way in which writers can improve their craft is to read about it. There are bazillions of books, journals, and websites dedicated to the art and craft of writing. Resolve to incorporate these into your reading schedule in any way you think might work, as long as it’s regularly, so that you don’t “mean to do it at some point.” Designate a day of the week, for example, as craft day. Ideally, target your reading to your writing goals (#6). Troubled by the fact that you have no idea what “prosody” means? Read about it, dummy.

4. Read good stuff regularly. A writer who doesn’t read is most likely a poser. You can’t love writing and not read. My only caveat here is that you read good things. For example, spending half an hour reading the news on AOL is reading, but it’s functional reading, not good reading. Good reading means something that is well-written and will sink into your bones and make you a better writer yourself. It doesn’t mean you have to read in the same genre that you write. A prose writer can learn from poetry and vice versa. What it means is that you must create a symbiotic relationship between your reading and your writing, so that they feed each other. You must read actively and critically, noticing what you like and why. Incorporate your reading activity into your journalingwrite about what you’re reading and why you like or dislike it.

Moreover, read regularly. Ideally, you should be reading for hours every day, but, if you really can’t, just fifteen minutes a day can start you off on the right track. Maybe you can’t read every day, but set aside a couple of days a week to do so. If a week goes by and you haven’t gotten to your book (or whatever), something’s wrong with either you or the book. Maybe your book sucks. Get rid of it! A good book is good in the first 20 pages, or it’s gone, baby! Not liking it but it’s highly recommended by a trustworthy source (not “Crazy Dude from the Liquor Store”)? Maybe you suck. Get a reading guide, read reviews, ask somebody. Give it another 50 pages to figure out what you’re missing. If, after 50 pages, it still sucks (to you), make a decision. Continue reading so as to figure out how never to write like this yourself, or chuck it. You’re dying, every minute. There’s no time to waste on a bad book when so many good ones are out there and you’ll never live long enough to read them all. Or, perhaps what’s wrong has nothing to do with the book at all. Are you watching movies and playing 52 Pickup again instead of reading? Check your journal if you’re not sure.

3. Set aside a specific time for submitting. “Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing,” Sylvia Plath once said, and this from a woman married to a philanderer. Don’t let this happen to you. Anything remotely finished should be out at all times. Don’t worry if it’s not “perfect” yetif it isn’t, it’ll be rejected, and you can spruce it up when it comes back. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent something out just because I’m so sick of it it’s either send it out or delete it forever, and, dontcha know, it gets picked up! Doesn’t mean you send out your garbage. Don’t embarrass yourself. But oftentimes, the quest for the perfect draft ends in a stinking pile of unpublished writing. Another reason writers often slack on the submitting is that it’s tedious. That’s why you must commit to a schedule. I had a really good streak of publications when I practiced “Submission Fridays.” No, it wasn’t some S&M thingI simply committed to seeking out venues and preparing submissions every Friday, and it worked. Maybe a weekly schedule is too much for you, but at least once a month is a good goal. Something must leave the house at least once a month, or else you’ll have that stinking pile.

2. Set aside a specific time for revising. Often, a writer can get stuck in FDM (First Draft Mode). You get all excited, you write a first draft, and then you get all excited about something else, and write a first draft of that, and so forth. Nothing ever gets to publishable level. Commit to revising regularly, a time when drafting new material is simply not allowed. It can be fifteen minutes at the end of your writing time, or a certain day of the weekwhatever works. But, even if you’re rather recursive in your methodyou draft, revise, and edit all at onceyou can benefit from a revision-only moment. Ideally, this should be a couple of days to a couple of weeks after the first draft, when the material has “sat” for a little while and you’ve lost the familiarity with it that can blind you to a good revision effort. Also ideally, you can have your forced revision time right before your forced submission timethat way, you revise, and out it goes!

1. Set aside a specific time for writing. C’mon, you knew that’d be number one! Duh. Again, it can be just fifteen minutes a day, or a couple of days a weekthe more the better. It’s a job, and, if you have no other, you’d be remiss to put in less than 40 hours a week. Be a workaholic about your writing. Do more, always more. But don’t let the fact that you can’t do it full time stop you from doing it at all. A little writing is better than none, and, if you resolve to be regular about itnot “when you can” or “when I’m inspired” (ew), but Tuesdays and Fridays, 6-8 pmyou’ll write more. Remember, a writer writes.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Greatest Stories Ever Retold

Christmas is a time for retelling storiesfrom the story of Jesus’ birth, to the countless viewings of It’s a Wonderful Life, to the retelling of family stories of past years, we never seem to tire of old stories, which is really weird in a culture otherwise obsessed with the new and disposable. Why are some stories worth retelling, and not others? And why are some retellings better than others?
The story of the nativity might seem like an exception, because retelling it is an act of faith. Nevertheless, it offers some explanation for why it bears so much repeating even to those outside the faith. Without getting too academic, one can still say that it’s one of those archetypal stories that tap into our most basic drives. The mythical birth, the rise of a common individual to the rank of God, the saving of the world through an act of sacrificeall these are themes that recur in culture after culture in the most popular of stories.  Think of the parallel to Star Wars: another mysterious birth (the twins birthed by the queen hidden away separately), another simple boy who saves the day and restores good. The sacrificial element might not be as condensed as it is in the Passion, but it’s there from the moment Luke has to do his chores instead of going into Tosche Station to the moment he sets fire to the body of Vader, who dies in the attempt to save his son.

So why are some retellings of the same story so much better than others? My husband makes fun of me because of my penchant for issuing edicts. I have two edicts relevant to this discussion: no more retellings of A Christmas Carol, and no more vampire stories. My edicts are very useful, I think, because they stop me from wasting my valuable time that I could be spending on Facebook or writing this blog. I’m always very tempted to cave in to retellings of A Christmas Carol or vampire stories, and the edicts help me to resist, even if Scrooge is recast as Fidel Castro or the vampires are robotic. Somehow, these two stories, though archetypally appealing (the change of heart, the pros and cons of immortality), always fail to impress me in the retelling.

The reason is pretty simple, I think, and it requires that we clarify what we mean by retelling. Putting on a production of a play is not the same as retelling a story in print form. Let’s take another one of those often retold stories, Romeo and Juliet. Whether you’re attempting to be faithful to Shakespeare’s original or recasting the leads as a vampire and a klutzy teenager, if you’re performing the play your success will in some measure be dictated by the quality of the performances, or other production factors like staging, direction, etcetera. Ergo, you can have the same faithful rendition of the original performed by two different sets of actors, and one will be good but the other suck. This situation cannot be duplicated in print, since it would hardly make sense to rewrite the original as-is. Perhaps the most you could do is work on a new translation. To wit: a production is not the same as a retelling.

So, what about the vampire version? Are you guaranteed a good retelling (as opposed to a production) if you turn classic characters into vampires? Of course not, and herein lies my problem with the countless retellings of A Christmas Carol featuring Scrooge as Castro or Mickey Mouse or, what the heck, a vampire. You get all excited by the switcharoo, and then it falls flat. Nothing happens. The retelling fails.

Why? Because, when you retell a story, you still have to tell it well. You can’t just piggyback on an old story to carry yours. You still have to have all those elements of good storytelling in place to make it work: great characters, a complex plot, rich setting, and, of course, good language and a complex theme. If Scrooge-as-Castro is exactly like Scrooge-as-Scrooge, with the same actions and feelings, then what’s the point of resetting the whole story in Cuba? Therein lies the heart of the retelling problem: there must be a point to your retelling, and so many of the quirky versions of these popular stories seem to have none. What happens if we trade Scrooge in for a communist dictator is not a matter of what he would wear or what language he would speak. Such matters are simple exercises in replacement, not in creativity.

I’m currently reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a novel about historical figure Thomas Cromwell. It’s a shame that I’m reading it as I am, here and there, this waiting room, these fifteen minutes before I fall asleep. It’s riveting, which is amazing, given that it’s a true story and one that has not only been told countless times before, but also read by me countless times. I’m a sucker for the Tudors, and I must have read a thousand stories about Henry VIII. I’m glad I don’t have an edict, however, because it would have kept me from reading this wonderful book. What’s so wonderful about it? It’s not just that she chose a comparatively minor figure (hardly minor, really, but most people go for the king himself or Anne Boleyn), although that does help. It certainly worked for Philippa Gregory, who also told this story very well in The Other Boleyn Girl, told from the point of view of Anne’s sister, Mary. More than the choice of focus, however, what makes Mantel’s novel so enjoyable is just the fine writing. She really humanizes Cromwell, who is usually seen as just a conniving figure, by giving him a family and complex feelings that have nothing to do with being “good” or “bad.” She also tells the story in present tense, in sparse, clear language that is immediate and gripping. She could write about her dog taking a crap and make it compelling.

So tell and retell all the stories that you want. Tell them straight, or tell them slant, but tell them well. Don’t delude yourself into believing that, just because you’ve turned all the usual characters into robotic vampires from space, you’ve got yourself an original take on an old story. Originality is not a matter of circumstance, but of thought. Mantel apparently spent five years researching the historical circumstances of Cromwell’s story, and didn’t turn a single character into a robot space alien, and yet this umpteenth retelling of Henry VIII’s shenanigans is the freshest thing I’ve read in years. In the end, there’s no such thing as a good story. When we hear a story, watch a movie, or read a book over and over, it’s not the story we’re enjoying, it’s the way it’s told.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Writerly Gifts

Well, what else did you think I was going to blog about this week? You’ve got one week left before Christmas, and those freaky writer-types on your list. Before you pull a Tribbiani and get them the 100th fancy pen they’ve received in their lives, let me help you out. For one thing, you should think about the fact that just because someone is a writer or loves reading, it doesn’t mean that they don’t enjoy receiving the usual presents, like pretty scarves or fruitcake. But, if you want to get someone a gift that connects to their love of words, I have some ideas for you, all of which I’ve linked to Amazon. Just click on any of the pictures. Ain’t I helpful?

The obvious go-to gift this year (again) is an e-reader. The Kindle Fire is the hot one this year, I suppose, but the terrible thing about the e-reader idea is . . . . Well, there’s a few bad things. For one, make sure the person is receptive to the whole idea of e-books. Some people just aren’t. For example, although I love the idea of space-saving (you don’t know clutter until you marry two writer-academics and stick them in a one-bedroom), most of the books I want to read aren’t available as e-books, at least not yet. Poetry, for example, is not as well-represented in the e-market as prose, and a lot of the prose is also bestselling and/or genre fiction. Some little obscure book that I got in my head to read isn’t necessarily going to be available as an e-book. Moreover, if your writerly pal is receptive to e-books, it’s likely he or she already has an e-reader, or, if not, then someone else in their lives is going to get them one, or they’ve already gotten one for themselves. In other words, investigate.

A really great choice for
the general book lover.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s discuss old-fashioned books. First tip: when giving a book as a gift, get a nice edition. Splurge for the hardcover, the first edition, or the anniversary or other fancy edition if it’s a classic. A signed edition is especially valuable. It’s a gift, remember? I can get the paperback edition at the drugstore myself, thank you very much. Second tip: unless the book is rare and you want to preserve its value, take the time to write an inscription. Unlike an author signature, a gift inscription simply tells the person you are giving the book to something about why you’re giving it, and reminds them, later, whom they received the gift from. It’s an old-fashioned practice that not many people know about anymore, but I think it’s wonderful and adds a personal touch to the gift. Etiquette varies, so anywhere on the first page is fair game. For wonderful examples, check out The Book Inscriptions Project.

A book about bookplates.
While we’re on the subject of inscriptions, a great book gift that is not a book (and can also be cheap, although fancy, personalized ones exist) is bookplates. There are many kinds of bookplates, but what you need to know, basically, is that they exist! Lots of people have never seen one of these, but they are basically a means of putting your name in your book. Far from being simply a way to get your book back if someone borrows it or you lose it, bookplates can be an art form. Some are self-stick, some aren’t; do some exploring and find one you like.
Really cool bookplates.
But what about books themselves? Hold your horses. First, know that giving someone a book is very personal, just like clothes, movies, or music. Don’t give someone too specific a book unless you know them well, in which case you probably don’t need my help. If you want some general suggestions, here’s a few.

Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. Anyone who enjoys reading and writing will appreciate this classic. It’s perfectly okay to have a working copy, like I do, and a nice edition, like the illustrated one.
A Freaking Awesome Dictionary. While MS Word comes with a dictionary and there are many excellent dictionaries online, someone who’s really into words will appreciate a good, comprehensive dictionary, especially one that is not for general use, like a usage dictionary, for example, or a latest edition that has the most recent changes to the language.

A Great Edition of a Classic Work
. While a new book is a little risky if you don’t know someone’s tastes very well, there are a few books most people appreciate. For example, Shakespeare. While a comprehensive Shakes is a bit much for the average person, a nice edition of a single workthe favorite play, or, for the romantic interest, the complete sonnetscan make for a beautiful gift. Speaking of sonnets, if you really want to give a classic romantic gift, EBB’s Sonnets from the Portuguese is a real panty-dropper. Or, if you happen to know the person’s favorite author, go for it.

A Great Edition of a Children’s Classic. Okay, so I’m stealing the idea from Friends, but this is a really cool idea! I received a copy of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! when I was in college, and it was really romantic! The idea can also work for children, of course, or even new parents. You could even tweak it a little and get a revamped version of a classic, but the nostalgic swoon won’t be the same. Think Nancy Drew, Little Women, Heidi, Little House on the Prairie, or a nice Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

A Cross-Medium or Unusual Choice. Like the favorite author idea, but don’t want to give yet another copy of the novel or collection of poems you’re sure the person already has? Go the unusual routeart by the poet, a biography, a study, a work inspired by the favoritein other words, something about the favorite writer rather than by him or her. Please note that the fan of Jane Austen may not necessarily enjoy a zombie version of her work.

A Beautiful Cookbook. People who love books are art lovers in general, and cooking is an art many writers love. Think about it: like writing, cooking is both art and craft, and something you do at home. Moreover, many cookbooks are way beyond a collection of recipes, and have a narrative and artistic component. If you want to give a book and the person cooks, a cookbook may be a fun gift, especially is you pair it with a great bottle of wine (something else writers are notoriously fond of).

Words & Music. Another thing word lovers love is music. Everyone is buzzing about the new Springsteen book, for example, which is a) a book, b) about music, c) a photography book, and d) a memoir. Springsteen is one of those musicians readers and writers loveexcellent lyrics. Music is perhaps an even more personal choice than books, but if you happen to know a person’s musical tastes, I bet you can find a great book to go with it.

. From paintings to photography, some of the most beautiful book gifts are art books. Again, personal tastes make this choice difficult, but, if you happen to know what kind of art the person likes, a great art book is a wonderful choice, or an art print. A friend who knew I had written a Christopher Columbus poem recently gave me a beautiful print of Columbus before the Council of Salamanca. I thought that was awesome! Framed or unframed, if you can make a connection like that, you’re guaranteed a memorable gift.

A Book Related to the Person or an Upcoming Event. This takes a little more finesse, but a little thinking can land you the right choice without getting too risky. Is the person planning a trip soon? A great travel guide, dictionary, or historical book about the country can make for a great gift. Pregnant? A classic like Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. Any teachers on your list might enjoy The Mindset Lists of American History: From Typewriters to Text Messages, What Ten Generations of Americans Think Is Normal, from the Beloit Mindset List writers, which lots of educators like to read to see “what the kids are up to.”

People don’t often think of books as gifts, but they can be wonderful: cheap, readily available, easy to wrap. The problem is that not everyone enjoys books, and that those who do can be intimidating and mysterious. You don’t have to guess at whether someone will like the book you choose, however, if you put a little thought into it. It’s no different from getting someone a shirt, really. And you never have to worry about sizing!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Complicated Musings on a Sad Anniversary, or Has Poetry Lost Its Audience?

A couple of days ago, December 4, to be exact, marked the fifth anniversary of the publication of my first chapbook of poems, Shapeshifting. Unfortunately, Spire Press, who published it, didn’t make it to the anniversary, dying just a few months short. My beautiful, weird-looking, neon-green chapbook is no more.  It has ceased to be. Ex-Spired and gone to meet its maker, who is meI have a handful of leftover copies, there’s one still on Amazon, and some more floating around the new and used marketplace corners of the Internet. And that’s all, folks. 

It’s a headshot, but not a stray bullet. I’ve been evading becoming a casualty in this war for a while, and I guess it was my turn. If you believe in coincidence, synergy, The Matrix, morphic resonance, Jung, chaos theory, Godwhatever you choose to call the way in which the universe organizes itselfI should have seen it coming. Some months ago I had been helping a friend of mine research how to start a small press. I warned him and warned him about how difficult it was to make a success of this thing, but he was adamant. I compared it to startingand keepinga successful restaurant in New York. Nobody wants to buy poetry anymore, I said.

And then there was the long discussion on Wom-po (the Women’s Poetry Listserv) about the popularization of reading fees for standard submissions, which started a discussion about poetry and the market, who gets paid, who doesn’t, who should. As a rule, only a tiny handful of magazines and journals pay poets (and other writers) money for their work. This tiny handful is usually the most elite and well-established of publications, and a few crusaders from the small-press brigades. The standard payment when you publish in a print venue is two contributor’s copies, or the honor of being published if it’s an online venue. Even this form of payment is decreasing, however. Sometimes you get just one copy, sometimes a discount on however many you’d like to purchase. Sometimes nothing. And now the move is to charge reading feesthe poet pays a small amount per poem or submission to be considered for publication.  Why? To ensure that the publication can continue, since not enough revenue is generated from sales and subscriptions. As I said, nobody wants to buy poetry anymore.

The next sign was the raging bitch fight between Helen Vendler and Rita Dove over The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Vendler wrote a really nasty review totally dissing Dove, who edited, for her choices. Too much of this, too little of that. Dove supplied an enumerated response defending her choices. Vendler didn’t care to reply (or to stoop). The whole thing is political; accusations flew, sides were taken. My interest in this discussion is not the content of the disagreement, but its subtext. Why such passion over just one anthology?

The reason is simple. This anthology wields some big power. It is one of a tiny number of anthologies that will be taught in the schools, and, for many, may wind up being the only poems they ever read. Thus, Dove’s decisions are disproportionately enormous. I’m not defending Vendler’s nastiness, but I do see where part of her passion is coming from (and am rather pleased with it). If there were more anthologies out there getting bought, taught, and read, Dove would be just one voice, just one opinion. Moreover, if there were more poetry of all kinds being bought, taught, and read, anthologies in general would carry less weight. You didn’t get enough Wallace Stevens in your anthology? Big deal. There he is on the shelf in the local bookstore, there he is on your daughter’s nightstand, there he is in the magazine at the dentist’s. But the sheer panic of Vendler’s attack is that there he is not; it’s not completely psychotic to assume, in a culture where so little poetry is circulating, that not enough representation in one influential anthology can eventually mean the disappearance of a whole poet. You could put out an army of alternative anthologies, but who would buy them? Nobody wants to buy poetry anymore.

Well, why the hell not? Don’t give me any bullshit about the economy. I just got back from Christmas shopping, and people are shelling out beaucoup bucks for all sorts of crap. $75 for a blouse from Lauren Conrad. $600 for an iPad. $400 for Jennifer Lopez sheets. $65 for the Naked 2 palette from Urban Decay. Compared to that, $15-$25 for a collection of poetry, $10-$25 for a subscription to a journal, or $50-$100 for a thousand-page anthology seems like a bargain.

So, if it’s not the money, what it is? I could spend the rest of my life citing people who discuss how American poetry, at least, has lost its connection to the public, become too academic or self-absorbed. Where’s the love poem you can recite to the honey? Where’s the patriotic poem you can read at the Fourth of July celebration? Perhaps that is why the only poetry that sells and gets taught in the schools was written over 100 years ago, with the exception of statement poetry of the kind Maya Angelou writes, which can be uplifting.

That is a really shortsighted argument, however, one that has at its heart the same panicked issue that is fueling the Vendler Vs. Dove smackdown: the mad scramble for the few poetry readers left. If there’s only two of them, let’s give them what they want, and if that happens to be rhymed loved poetry about sexy vampires, then so be it.

And that, my faithful reader, is what I propose is the problem. Not the lack of money to pay for poetry, but the incongruity of marketplace values with the thing itself. In a perfect world, there should be room and readers for all kinds of poetryformal and free, uplifting and depressing, corny and serious, long and short, you name it. That simply can’t happen in a marketplace, however, because you can’t just “buy” poetry. Oh, you can purchase it, but you can’t enjoy it with the mere act of owning it. You have to be able to understand it and appreciate it in ways that have nothing to do with money, which is something that as a culture we have forgotten how to do. Something is “good” if you paid a lot of money for it, or if it’s a bargain, which means it originally cost a lot of money and you are so smart and clever for having gotten it for less. All our value systems operate on the concept of monetary worth, and poetry is circulating elsewhere. You don’t pay for poetry because, unlike a Whopper or a pair of flashy shoes, it doesn’t bring you automatic pleasure the very moment you buy it.

Gee, I hope you weren’t reading expecting me to come up with a solution. I’m just a poet, not an economist.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Bat & Poet: A Conversation with Chad Parmenter

Chad Parmenter received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri, and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Luther College in Iowa. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Harvard Review, and Kenyon Review, as well as being featured on Verse Daily. His debut chapbook, Bat & Man: A Sonnet Comic Book (Finishing Line Press, 2012), is a collection of poems based on the DC Comics superhero.

I first “met” Chad Parmenter in 2009. While preparing a class on contemporary formal verse, I came across Tony Barnstone’s wonderful article in The Cortland Review, “A Manifesto on the Contemporary Sonnet: A Personal Aesthetics.” Barnstone included Chad’s wonderful “A Holy Sonnet for His New Movie” in his article, and spoke of a collection called Batsonnets. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight had come out just the year before, so you can imagine my delight. Most of my students were batcrazywhat a wonderful way to do what Barnstone was suggesting to make the old form new.  In particular, I had one student who was a rabid fan, and I wanted him to read not just the poem in Barnstone’s article, but the whole collection. I searched and searched for it everywhere, but could not find it. Finally, I found Chad Parmenter on Facebook, and eventually discovered the collection was still in the manuscript stage. Chad sent my student an autographed copy of the manuscript for his birthday. Holy batkindness!

Imagine my delight again when, just over a week ago, Chad contacted me via Facebook to let me know the collection had found a home, with none other than my old friend, Finishing Line Press. The collection, due out February 2012, is now available for special preorder from FLP’s website, and features the wonderful artwork of Mark Cudd. Being a superhero addict myself, I immediately asked Chad if he would agree to talk about the collection for this blog.

Q: Talk about your subject matter—what say you to the claim that poetry and comics don’t mix? Do you worry about labels like “serious” when it comes to poetry?

A: For me, growing up, reading comics was a serious thing--it gave me an escape that I absolutely needed, being a shy kid with thick glasses and little to no idea of how to talk to people. Batman, in particular, appealed to me because of his ability to turn completely from one person into another by putting his mask on. Poetry provided me with some of the same things, and has since then—serious play, maybe.

Q: A related question: Many critics believe that American poetry has drifted away from the American public. How do you see your work in relation to the public’s tastes? Did you have a specific audience in mind as you crafted these poems?

A: Good questions! I'm still not really sure who I write for; I do it because I enjoy it a ton, and writing a bunch of poems about Batman appealed to me as a fun kind of challenge. My favorite audience is whoever wants to read the poems, and the idea that it's not a lot of people kind of appeals to me somehow—I grew up with poetry as something that not a lot of people read, and that gave it an indy sort of feeling that I think is still with me.

Q: Why Batman?

A: Batman popped into my head one day as a topic to aim at, and most of me instantly said, "don't do that, it's off the map of what you've been reading and there's no way you can get a bunch of poems out of it that will be any good." So part of my brain seems to have taken that as a dare, and run with it, and kept running. In the process, I found a lot about both Batman and the scared kid I was when reading him that still really draws me—persona, how to deal with loss, and how to negotiate darknesses of different kinds.

Q: Why sonnets?

A: I've written a number of free verse poems about Batman, but the sonnet seems like a form that really fits with him, and maybe the superhero as a subject (Bryan Dietrich starts his book, Krypton Nights, with a sonnet crown that really helped me to read). Superheroes, and superhero narratives, follow strict rules, and tend to follow them mostly the same way no matter what; life gets inserted into that formula, and it changes the formula a little bit, but the formula wins out. I love that!

Q: How is your Batman different from other representations?

A: D.A. Powell wrote a poem involving Batman, and Bryan Dietrich did, too; there may be other Batman poems out there that I'm not aware of, but both of those poets have helped me by treating Batman as a malleable character, and one to be taken seriously, not just as a kind of campy figure. I'm pretty much following their leads, and using Batman as a kind of malleable figure, if that makes sense.

Q: What advice would you give to others who are interested in writing about similar themes?

A:  Kevin Young, when I asked him that question, said, "Get obsessed," and that worked for me! I devoured Batman media of different forms, and tried to write about it from a bunch of different angles, until something seemed to click.

Q: What’s next for you, now that the book is coming out?

A: Thanks; I have a full length Batman collection that I'm shopping around, and a couple of other manuscripts that are also each explorations of a single topic"my America," about photographer Edward Weston, and "Vivienne's Recovery," an homage to T.S. Eliot's wife, Vivien Eliot.

Q: Whom are you reading?

A: Right now, I'm reading Shakespeare, Ovid, a little bit of Heidegger, a bazillion different contemporary poets including Meghan O'Rourke and Rodney Jones, and, if this counts as reading, playing Batman: Arkham City on Xbox 360.

Well, that explains a lot. Talk about a postmodern aesthetic. That is what appealed to me about Chad’s poetry in the first place, and it’s a common thread through all the works  of artists who engage with pop culture: fluidity. There is nothing worse for art than codification. Art dies when artists stop pushing at the limits of how it is defined. It takes an agile mind to see the perfect fit between the sonnet form and the comic hero the way Chad explains it above. Thanks, Chad!

Read some of Chad's sonnets at Diagram, and check out more of Mark Cudd's beautiful work here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Top Ten Things I Am Grateful for This Thanksgiving

In the spirit of David Letterman, and taking full advantage of my new blog mission, I present the top ten reasons I am grateful this Thanksgiving, which has nothingand everythingto do with writing:

10. Good students. They exist. I know I gripe a lot about the bad ones, but, without the good ones, I’d probably kill myself. It’s hard to be an adjunct, to get paid so little, to be so marginal. When on top of that you think sometimes that you might as well have just popped in a movie for all the attention the students pay to class, it really becomes impossible to drag yourself to work. And then, it happens: the great essay, the great comment in class, the rare compliment. Someone who gets it. Someone who makes you feel like you’re a distinguished professor at Harvard. To the good ones, thanks.

9. The Internet. Been around now long enough for people to take it for granted, but I remember a time without it pretty good, when looking something up meant a trip to the library and it could take weeks for you to get a book in the mail. Thanks to the Internet, I read amazing things every day from all over the world, right in my pajamas, and mostly for free. Thanks to Facebook, I have reconnected with old friends and distant family. I can see their pictures and read about what they’re doing and what they care about, and they can learn the same from me. I can connect with people I’ve never met and would have never even heard of without the Internet, people like you reading this right now. Who are you? I don’t even know, but there you are, reading my words. I don’t have to wait for a publisher to find what I have to say interesting; I can publish it right here on my very own free blog. I can also, through the Internet, submit my work to those very publishers I don’t need for this blog, and they can respond to me via email, without having to use stamps or a trip to the post office. I can learn about new journals and presses without having to special-order trade books or scour libraries. The Internet may be a superficial place, but it’s not meant to replace realityjust to enhance it. For its endless stream of information, good and bad, thanks.

8. Being a vegetarian. The more I learn about food, the happier I am to be one. My only regret is that I can’t seem to commit to strict veganismdairy sneaks in anywhere, and I still cave in to cheese. But this mouth has not touched meat for 18 years, and I am grateful, so grateful! Grateful to the original Ms. Alvarez, the English teacher who was a vegetarian and laid the psychological groundwork to make me one, although I wouldn’t succeed at it until I met my husband many years later. If not for her coolness, I might have not considered it. The biggest thanks goes to my husband, who taught me the skills I needed to succeed at itwhat is tofu and where to buy it, and the horrors of factory farming that he used to teach every year in his first-year comp class. Thanks too to my mom, who tagged along at the ripe old age of 64, when many peopleespecially meat-loving Cubanswould have balked at such radical change. But she not only became a vegetarian herself, but learned to cook all over again for us, and to this day tells anybody who will listen about the horror of meat and shares her recipes with strangers at the supermarket. Now that everyone is obese, diabetic, and freaking out at all the hot documentaries like Supersize Me, Food, Inc., and Forks over Knives, I am grateful, so grateful.

7. My education. This cubanita can outtalk, outwrite, and outthink almost everyone she knows, and she has an urban public school, a Catholic school, and a football school to thank for it. Education is what you make of it, my little grasshoppers, and my family taught me to make the most of mine, and I did not find it lacking. What a joy it is to be able to read and understand anything I want, in two languages! (Maybe more, if you give me some extra time, a dictionary, and some leeway when it comes to clarity.) I see grown people every day who can’t read through a simple sentence, either through lack of vocabulary or through lack of sufficient background knowledge. In this increasingly complex world, I pity them. I pity them when they are sick, and they have to trust a bevy of overstressed doctors to prescribe a pill from a company that took them out to dinner. I pity them at the supermarket, when their decisions are based on advertising. I pity them at the mall, when they don’t understand how they are being manipulated. I pity them when they’re bored because “there’s nothing on TV.” Somehow, I was spared living an unexamined life, and, however unfit it has made me to enjoy the wonders of reality television and Black Friday, I am grateful, so grateful.

6. My wealth. I am rich, so rich. I have a house, and although it’s cramped and cracking, it’s secure, and it shelters me and mine. We have air conditioning and Netflix. There are three cars in the driveway, and I can use any at any time. They may not be sexy, but they’re reliable, and all paid for. I have clothes to wear whether it’s hot or cold, and some are even kinda stylish. I have never been hungry, ever, for lack of money to buy food. If my dog gets sick, I can take her to the vet and pay for it, even to her fancy specialist. We have no trouble making copayments for our human doctors. It’s been a struggle for this feminist to accept that this wealth comes from her husband, but I am grateful for every time the bills come and I can pay them without scrambling anymore. This is an enormous blessing. God has given us enough money to live well but not so much to let us forget what it means to lack it, and He has given us this amazing gift of being able to see that it isn’t iPads and Manolo Blahnik shoes that make us happy.

5. My freedom. Yes, yes, I have a love-hate relationship with this country. Being an immigrant is kind of like being the fat cousin someone showed up with to the cool kids’ partythey let you in because they don’t want to be rude, but they would have preferred it if you’d stayed home. But, despite its problems, this continues to be one of the best countries in the world to live in. You pay your taxes and are pretty much free to do what you want after that, and you have a fair shot at a school and a job and a decent life. That’s not equally true for everyone, unfortunately, but, compared to some other countries, the USA is still better. Better than Cuba, anyway. If my parents had not taken the leap, first of all, I might not have even been born, since my mother had so little to eat and was so stressed she couldn’t carry a child to term until she left. Had we gotten around that, I’d probably be an engineer of some kind, but I’d be whoring myself out to the tourists on el Malecón for money to buy food on the black market. I couldn’t keep this blog or do all that wonderful e-living (see #9). My house would belong to the state, and they could take it away whenever they wanted (see #6). Plus it wouldn’t have air conditioning. Or three cars in the driveway. Or a fancy vet. You get the picture. For the USA, I’m grateful.

4. My health. So the flu knocked me out for a couple of weeks. Big deal! I’m almost forty and I’ve never been hospitalized, never even broken a bone. I take not one prescription drug. Man, I’m so healthy. I can eat what I want, I can run up three flights of stairsin heels. I am freakishly, wonderfully, incredibly healthy. Without even trying. I smoked, I still drink, I eat rather badly (vegetarian does not equal healthyconsider that Funyuns and beer are both vegetarian). I totally gave up on that stupid treadmill. I haven’t been to a doctor in over ten years. I am so ridiculously healthy, and I’m grateful.

3. My friends. Don’t have many of them, and don’t treat them wellI neglect them for months, even years. Yet, some hang on. God only knows why. Thanks.

2. My family. They tax me, they heap me, but they are my greatest blessing, my clearest mission, from my immediate family to the extended network of hundreds, it seems, I can call blood. I love my stupid dog, whom I tried to give away when I found her on the street because I had too many pets already and who needed a little annoying mutt. Now that she’s the one and only, I shudder when I remember how close I came to giving her away. She’s next to me right now, working hard to keep me warm, make me happy. And I love my stupid husband, who stumbled into my life and stayed, and who wakes up every morning and goes to sleep at night with the single-minded mission of making me happy and taking care of me. And I love my crazy mother and her vegetarian concoctions and her big Benjamin Franklin head. I love my father, who only knows how to work and did it for me and my mother and does it still at 78, waking up at five in the morning to go to work and coming home to demand that we play dominoes even though we suck at it and he ends every game by saying he will never play with us again. I love my uncle, who, at 91, still plans on going to the beach in the summer. And every cousin and every in-law I haven’t seen for too long who still, somehow, is connected to me in ways no Facebook application can possibly understand. I am grateful for them all, and for the ones who are now dead who watch over me and are waiting.

1. My faith. Somehow, a feminist academic has been able to not only hang on to her faith, but have it grow. True, I might have faltered there for a while in my questioning twenties, but it came back to me and has stayed. There’s much about it that I can’t understand, but faith is believing without understanding, and I do. I wouldn’t find meaning in anything if not for God. If we were just a collection of biochemistry and nothing more, I’d see no reason not to toss the Petri dish into the garbage. The secure knowledge that this broken plane isn’t all there is to my existence is the only thing that makes me able to keep going. So what if things go wrong here? Of course they do. This place is busted. You get through it. You keep your eye on the prize. When I get to heaven, God will explain all the things even the Internet can’t (see #9).  What I am most grateful for this Thanksgiving is that I know to Whom I’m grateful. It’s kind of baffling that people have come to see this as a secular holiday. I understand that people gather to be with family and celebrate togetherness, but saying thanks implies an audience. Thank you, _____? No comprendo (despite #7). And I’m so freaking grateful that I’m not going to wake up at 3 am to go pitch a tent in front of a store. You might think that has nothing to do with religion, but I’m pretty sure that kind of fevered consumerism is a sign of a serious deprivation of meaning and self-worth. I’m grateful, so grateful, that I do my worshipping at St. Dominic’s, and not Best Buy!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

An Unexpected Birthday Present & a New Blog Mission

This blog is dying. This is my first post in almost two months! It’s time to make some changes, and what better time than a birthday to start over? Birthdays, like New Year’s, are a time for reevaluation, and significant birthdays that much more soI’m going to be 39! No, it’s not the big 4-0, but it’s in a weird way even more of a milestone: the last of the birthdays beginning with 3. Goodbye, thirties. I feel that compared to 39, 40 will be some kind of arrival, some kind of welcome arrival. Didn’t much enjoy my thirties, for all that they’re supposed to be “the new twenties.” Maybe my forties will be what my thirties were supposed to have been, maybe once I’m there I’ll be able to reinvent myself, or at least this blog. 

The issue that I’m having is staying true to the blog’s description, “A blog for beginning writers about the basics of writing creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.” As you can see above, I’m adding “and other musings about teaching, writing, and living with words.” Less specific, perhaps, but that’s the point. The main reason why I haven’t been posting regularly is simply the lack of time, but there are also other thoughts where writing about writing should be. I only get to teach creative writing in the spring, and when I’m busy I do much less writing of my own, which means that I have much less to say about writing. On the other hand, there are lots of topics I would like to have a chance to write about that don’t fit the original blog description. For a while, I contemplated starting another, more personal blog, but that just seems irrationalif I don’t have time to keep one blog going, what’s the logic in starting another? Besides, according to fellow poet-blogger Ann E. Michael, this blog has always, apparently, been about more than I thought. According to her, my “posts include cultural commentary, books, movies, education, feminism, and tips on writing.” Sometimes it takes someone else to point out the obvious!

So, expect to see more posts about all that other stuff, as well as the usual posts on craft, which continues to be the main emphasis of this blog as I see it. Hopefully a little more wiggle room in terms of what I allow myself to write about will give me the necessary push to save Writing with Celia.

Meantime, check this out: they’re celebrating MY BIRTHDAY in New York! Oh, this is sweeeeeet! My jaw dropped when I got the Google alert. What a nice thing to do. My thanks go out to Roxanne Hoffman of Poets Wear Prada, who is hosting the event, in which five local poets, David Joel Friedman, author of The Welcome (National Poetry Series, University of Illinois Press. 2006), Erik La Prade (Chelsea), George Held (Greenwich Village), Maria Lisella (Astoria), and Juanita Torrence-Thompson (Flushing), will be reading from their own work and that of the November birthday poets, Stephen Crane (11/1), Marianne Moore (11/15), J.P. Dancing Bear (11/17), Sharon Olds (11/19), Paul Celan (11/20), William Blake (11/28), and myself. My thanks too to Left Bank Books, and to Andrew Christ, who included me in his November poet birthdays list, and, of course, hugs and kisses to the participating poets. If you are anywhere near NY tomorrow night, please go to this event, and comment below! The reading will take place tomorrow, Friday, November 18, 2011, at 8:00 p.m. Left Bank Books is located in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan between Bank and West 12th Streets at No. 17 8th Avenue, New York, NY 10014. For more information, see the Poet’s Wear Prada post on this event.

I can’t tell you how mind-blowing it is to know that my poems are in a city I’ve never been in, in the hands of people I’ve never met. I feel just like Sally Field, who was doing pretty well when she was 39:

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

99 Writing Problems, but a Bitch Ain’t One

People who don’t know me very well are often surprised to hear that I’m one foul-mouthed . . . woman. Perhaps no one expects a 5’4” female poet-professor to have the talent to make Yosemite Sam blush. Whatever. I’m very proud of my ability to drop F-bombs not just between words, but between syllables. It just feels good. However, it makes teaching hard. One must keep things professional. There are two words I do allow myself to use in class: bullshit and bitch.

Listen: I’m a freaking poet. That means I will use the best word for the job, and if it offends you, go run and complain to whom you will. Bullshit is an excellent word. You can spend half an hour explaining to a student that her answer to a question “lacks authority” or “is verbose” or “illogical,” or you can say “you’re just bullshitting here” and get your point across immediately. I choose the latter approach.

Similarly, feminist politics be damned, nothing conveys my maximum-security-prison approach to writing skills better that the word bitch. You need to make words your bitches. Moreover, and here I finally get to the point of this post, if you’re going to walk around calling yourself a writer, you need to make MS Word and other tools your bitches.

Johnny, why have you chosen to capitalize the first word of all the lines in your poem? That seems like a rather traditional choice. Are you making a statement about traditional poetry here vis-à-vis your contemporary urban subject matter?

Nah. I typed them lower case, and the computer just did that. I dunno why.

Johnny needs to learn how to make that computer his bitch. Usually, especially in contexts such as this blog, when one says “writing skills,” the assumption is one is referring to rhetorical or even grammatical skills. But we must remember the most essential meaning of the verb to write: to put words down on a legible surface via some sort of tool.

I came to computer skills late in life, even for a Generation Xer. I didn’t get my first computer, a Tandy 1000 RL, until I was a junior in college, in the early ‘90s. It didn’t even have a mouse or Windows. It had its own operating system, something called Deskmate. It came without a hard drive (later I installed one myself, thank you very freaking much). To switch between programs, you had to switch floppy disks. Before my Tandy, whom I affectionately called Keifer, I didn’t even have an electric typewriter. I had a mechanical Smith Corona.

Mind you, I love that typewriter (I still have it, somewhere). Something about the physicality of it is really appealing, the tapping noise of the keys and the zip-ping! when you got to the end of the line. I forget where, but somewhere I recently read (heard?) that when you press down on the keys of a typewriter, something pushes back. That’s pretty cool. Am I going to go back to writing on a typewriter? Hell no.

When I first got Keifer, I would still compose longhand, and then use the word processing application basically as a typewriter. This worked well from the point of view of revisionI made many changes as I typed. However, I soon abandoned this double process. Working on a computer was extremely liberatingI could go backwards and forwards, and make innumerable adjustments without confusion or extra work. Even as I write this, I have ideas I want to get to jotted down in my own gibberish above, below, and within paragraphs I have already drafted. True, these could just as easily be scribbled on a sheet of paper, but I couldn’t move them around as quickly.

The only drawback to writing on the computer is how easy it is to lose drafts. If you fiddle with, say, a poem too much, and want to go back to an earlier draft, it has been overwritten, unless you are carefully creating separate documents, or maybe printing drafts as you go along. But this is a minor inconvenience, easily overcome by more careful saving of your work.

The truth is you are lost as a writer in 2011 if you don’t have at least some basic computer skills. I’ve never even spoken to an editor. All of my publishing has been done through email. If you intend to work with small, independent publishers, be ready to format your own manuscript for publicationyou need the ability to make not just MS Word but also Adobe or other PDF software your bitches.

I’m no tekkie. I’m not running to go plunk down my vast adjunct wages for an iPad, for example. I played around with one at the store, and I’m not impressed by the keyboard function. Though it’s responsive, it’s not as responsive as a physical one, and I need to write. I can’t be checking to see if every third keystroke registered. True technological literacy is not about fluttering from one latest gadget to the other, but about knowing how to use the best tools to maximize your productivity, or creativity, as the case may be.

I have ranted before about the need to have good grammar and punctuation skills to be a good writer. That is also a form of literacy. The writer’s skills, however, don’t stop there. In the same way that you’re not going to find an editor willing to plod through your bad grammar, you’re not going to find someone to type for you or figure out how to number your pages for you. Well, you might, but get ready to pay for it with money or sex. There’s always at least one bitch in every situation. Don’t let it be you.

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