Writeliving Interview – Rae Armantrout

Rae Armantrout photo

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate National Poetry Month than with an interview with one of our best, brightest, and most influential poets Rae Armantrout. My copy of Versed is pretty dog-eared at this point, and I have a soft spot in my heart and a big place on my bookshelf for quintessential California writers.

- Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Early on I was influenced in different ways by William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson - Dickinson because she was a fearless thinker and a woman. When I was growing up it was still assumed that women would restrict themselves to thinking about love and domesticity. She used poetry to confront and argue with God, death, etc. But I think I got my line from Williams. His work is quite sonically beautiful even when it’s minimalist. And then,  among my contemporaries, Ron Silliman has had a huge influence on my writing because he is willing to read my drafts and give me his honest opinion. And, because he’s been reading me so long, his takes on my poems are really astute so he knows when something isn’t quite done or when it is but I won’t stop fiddling with it.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I make handwritten notes in a journal first. The note could be an observation. I might write down a snippet of overheard conversation, or a bit of something I read, or a response to something I read, or a description of something I see. Often there’s an unresolved feeling in these notes or an idea I can’t quite put my finger on. Then I feel like a detective because I’m going after that “thing” I sense. Maybe I try to  write more in the direction of the feeling/thought (I don’t separate the two) as if I were following it.  Other times I wait for more information to appear. Sometimes the poem happens when there are enough elements (bits) that feel somehow related. Then I start stitching the parts together. By this time I’m working on an iPad or computer. I usually go through a lot of drafts.

How has teaching impacted your writing?

I’m not sure. Indirectly. Once in awhile I actually do a take-off on something I catch myself saying to a class. I think, did I really say that? Do I mean it? And I go from there. And sometimes I’m “inspired” by something I read for class. Right now I’m team teaching a class called Poetry for Physicists with an actual physicist, Brian Keating, who played an important role in the recent discovery of gravity waves! So he got famous just as we started co-teaching! I’ve been trying to think of ways to discuss literary essays and poems with science students. That has been an interesting stretch. Two days ago I actually made a (simple) flow chart for the first time in my life! So we’ll see what comes of that!

What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice?

Well The Waste Land was originally called He Do the Police in Different Voices. I think that’s an excellent title. My advice is to realize there are lots of voices in your head. Let them all come out and play. I do.

Do you consider yourself part of any school of poetry?

We’re like fish that way I guess. We school. Seriously, I was educated by participating in the Language Poetry revolution. Those poets are my real colleagues. But we’re all very different writers. Always were really.

How has living in California shaped your poetic voice and sensibilities?

I’m a California native. I’ve always lived here so it’s a little like asking the proverbial fish what the sea is like. That said, I think my time in northern California gave me a particular poetic education. And the space, light, and flora of southern California enter my poems as images all the time. I came from literary nowhere. Neither of my parents went to college. I started reading on my own and I ended up at Berkeley which was the beginning of a shaping experience. But when I was starting out, I didn’t have a very strong sense of what was looming above me, if you see what I mean. I didn’t know enough to be intimidated or feel overshadowed. Oddly, that may have worked to my advantage. I was dancing by myself so I wasn’t inhibited.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

Well, my answer above describes the first adversity I faced. I started out behind and I didn’t even know it. Only someone as insanely stubborn as I am would have decided, standing on the sidewalk in front of a suburban convenience store, that she could be a poet. I didn’t even realize that the world was losing interest in poetry!  Sometimes not knowing anything is an advantage. I did know about sexism though. When I tried showing my high school English teacher my poems, he said, “Women can’t write poetry.” That just made me angry. Anger too can be helpful!

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

If I haven’t already said it, I probably don’t want people to know! But here’s an easy answer. I like to dance. I listen to top 40 radio in my car. And I play “The Fame Monster” (Lady Gaga) and “My Head is an Animal” (Monsters and Men) often when I’m driving.  Bob Dylan and The Stones as well.

About the Author:

Just Saying, Rae Armantrout’s most recent book of poems, was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2013. Versed (Wesleyan, 2009) received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Next Life (Wesleyan, 2007) was chosen as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2007 by The New York Times. Other recent books include Money Shot (Wesleyan, 2011,) Collected Prose (Singing Horse, 2007), Up to Speed (Wesleyan, 2004), The Pretext (Green Integer, 2001), and Veil: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001). Her poems have been included in anthologies such as The Best of the Best American Poetry: 1988-2012 (2013), The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry (2013), The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine, (Chicago, 2012), American Hybrid (Norton, 2009), American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Language Meets the Lyric Tradition, (Wesleyan, 2002), The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford, 2006) and The Best American Poetry of 1988, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2011 and 2012. Armantrout received an award in poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2007 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008. She is Professor of Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, San Diego. Writing in Poetry magazine, Ange Mlinko has said, “I would trade the bulk of contemporary anecdotal free verse for more incisive, chilling poetry like Armantrout’s.”

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Internet Literary News, March 2014

Please enjoy a few of the writing-related topics that caught my attention and tickled my funny bone in March.

Martin Ott

Harvard Discovers Books Bound in Skin

The Real Skinny on the Harvard University Library

This story brought a horrific practice to light that I didn’t know existed. Harvard University Library recently discovered that three of its library books were bound in human flesh, including one from a man who was flayed alive. What were the books about? In this case: Roman poetry, French philosophy,  and a treatise on medieval Spanish law. Some of our oldest libraries convey the spooky feeling that unspoken stories exist within (and outside) the books they contain. 

Are We Crazy to Be Writers or Just Crazy?

Writer and blogger Cody Delistraty shares the results of a study comparing the neurological similarities between successful writers and the mentally ill. Apparently, psychotic/schizophrenic-like thoughts and creative ideation trigger similar functional brain activities. This probably isn’t much a surprise for anyone who’s dated an author.

Drama in the Tournament of Books

In the first few rounds of The Morning News Tournament of Books, there was some controversy this year when Hill William author Scott McClanahan tried but failed to withdraw from the competition. Miles Klee from the Daily Dot wrote a scathing opinion piece that McClanahan was simply trying to manipulate the competition and used it to his advantage in a first round upset of the novel The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.

A Devil’s Dictionary of the American PoBiz

Here’s an example of one of the entries to the humor piece A Devil’s Dictionary of the American PoBiz by critic, poet and blogger Archambeau:

AWP Block: (Pronounce the “AWP” to rhyme with “yawp”): An occurrence in which your attempt to schmooze with the editor of an important journal is cut off by another desperate poet who sights the editor’s name tag and swoops in between the two of you, giving the editor a big air kiss and clocking you with a tote bag.

With AWP in the rearview and National Poetry Month yawning in front of us with a combination of ardent sincerity and exhibitionism sometimes it’s OK to make fun of ourselves as poets.

Street Fighter the Movie: What Went Wrong

At one time Stephen de Souza was one of Hollywood’s best known screenwriters with box office smashes CommandoThe Running Man48 Hours, and Die Hard to his name. Then he decided to take an ill-advised foray into directing a movie based on a video game. Chris Plante shares the mind-blowing saga of what went wrong on the movie set of Street Fighter, a real-life on-set nightmare on a scale with Tropic Thunder

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Part-time Faculty: Contingency Becomes Collective

Guest Post by Jean Waggoner

Jean Waggoner

A writing colleague who is a recent MFA graduate, recently posted a social media link to an article titled “Professors in Homeless Shelters: It is time to talk seriously about adjuncts,” along with the grim remark, “Now is the perfect time see an abundance of articles like these, right when I’m about to be searching the job market.” In that linked Salon article of March 17, Becky Tuch called adjunct abuse “one of higher education’s great sins” and asked why the Association of Writers and Writing Programs isn’t talking about it.

In the very last weeks of those specialized graduate programs for which college teaching is a logical career path, students might be cautioned, “It could take as long as eight years to secure a full-time, tenure-track job.” Try twelve. Try 15. Try it’s never going to happen! Try invade an area without a glut of ivy league universities and you may find that elusive job if you have an ivy league Ph. D. – but it will pay only $35K/year. Look for a different career! Maybe you could become an ad man?

Nobody wants to talk about it – not even the exploited adjuncts. The President of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) shocked listeners in November 2011 by saying on Brian Lamb’s PBS program that only 15% of America’s professorate held full-time tenured or tenure-track teaching jobs. Data are hard to come by, since wherever the legal limit of part-time faculty is around 66% of total teaching faculty (a figure long surpassed almost everywhere), the excess can be disguised by creative accounting. The disgruntled adjuncts can be dismissed with the pop culture admonition to the exploited, “You’re just not trying hard enough!” Creative administrations (like Citrus College’s in Los Angeles) offer interviewing techniques workshops to help drive home the point: “You weren’t the one in 500 applicants winner of that rarely offered full-time [but already-spoken-for] job in your discipline? It’s your fault! You’re no good! Be glad for the crumbs you’re getting.”

AAUP was in the vanguard, realizing that an impoverished part-time professorate lacks the means to belong to professional associations or subscribe to their expensive publications. Most members of this “adjunct” or “contingent” majority have neither the institutional support to attend professional conferences nor the status to apply for grants to fund their own research. Most are shut out of professional development and not even invited to department meetings in their disciplines. Being part of America’s new faculty majority is the social equivalent of working as a day laborer. Of course, an association of writing programs is not eager to broadcast such news.

The class-divide between the have and have-not faculty increases by the year. In the California community college system, for example, a part-time teacher would have to teach three times the annual load of a full-time faculty member (spread over a three- or four-campus commute, though) to have earnings at the bottom rung of a first year salary without the benefits. Since state budget cutbacks have all but eliminated summer school teaching (full time faculty take as proprietary overloads what little remains), there is no longer even that much opportunity to reach a middle-class income for this “other” 85% of faculty, many of whom actually shoulder committee work, volunteer their time to meet with students outside of class, do (unfunded) research, get published and effectively conduct themselves as real faculty, despite glaring disparities in both compensation and respect. In actuality, many part-time teachers treat the profession with more dignity than evidenced by their full-time opposites. “I thought that was a janitor” is a remark not applied to part-time faculty, the ones moving down the halls with their rolling luggage carts, dressed at least as professionally as the clerks at the local super market.

Plenty of complaints are lodged against “freeway fliers,” “road-scholars” or whatever the underbelly of the professorate is known by, as happens with any marginalized group. Adjuncts are out of the room and easy to blame for whatever ails the academy – and nobody wants to take the card-turning blame for their exploitation. It’s easier to talk in broader terms, as cultural studies philosopher Henry A. Giroux did in “Beyond Neoliberal Miseducation,” a March 20 article for Moyers and Company:

The transformation of higher education in the United States and abroad is evident in a number of registers. These include decreased support for programs of study that are not business-oriented; reduced funds for research that does not increase profit; the replacement of shared forms of governance with rigid business management models; the lessening of financial support for academic fields that promote critical thinking rather than an entrepreneurial culture; the ongoing exploitation of faculty labor; and the use of purchasing power as the vital measure of a student’s identity, worth and access to higher education.

American universities are becoming all-administration institutions, places where society’s elites can provide high-paying jobs for each other’s children at institutional expense, and where “faculty labor” is done by dangerous thinkers, highly suspect as purveyors of democratic ideology, who can now, in increasing numbers, be worked to exhaustion and controlled by threats of job loss. After all, the desired product is transfer or a degree, not knowledge transmitted by commie pink-o nuts who still believe in the Enlightenment and haven’t yet learned that the Constitution is evil or adopted Cretinism in regard to the theories of Darwin. In the tightening grip of this administrative vise, full-time professors argue for more full-time jobs, sensing a looming threat to tenure. For part-time faculty, campaigning to get two or three more faculty elites on campus is beside the point. Organizing for better part-time wages has become the priority.

Unfortunately, the system is stacked against contingent labor communications. Adjunct names, e-mail addresses and telephone numbers are neither listed in catalogs nor shown on department web pages, in most institutions. “Professor STAFF” is the schedule name of the shifting minions. Few campus activities provide specific adjunct gathering places or occur when adjuncts are able to attend. Contingency has meant isolation. Nonetheless, a gathering awareness is spreading via social media and occasional news items shared among energetic advocates for the new faculty majority. Isolated individuals are learning strategies touted in the business press. Speaking about social media and branding in a March 17 Forbes interview, Harvard Business School Professor Mikołaj Jan Piskorski noted, “Once firms recognize that consumers want to connect to each other, they can develop social strategies that do exactly that under the umbrella of their brand.” Contingent professors are finally coming into their own “brand” awareness and social platform strategies.

Some of the ongoing and emerging “brands” for contingent faculty advocacy are New Faculty Majority (http://www.newfacultymajority.info/equity), The Adjunct Project (http://adjunct.chronicle.com), Adjunct Justice (http://adjunctjustice.tumblr.com), the California Part-time Faculty Association (http://cpfa.org), COCAL – international/local (www.chicagococal.org) and the Save CCSF Coalition (www.saveccsf.org). In the last couple of years contingent faculty have gotten increasing television, blog and press coverage and even a modicum of national political attention, when Maria Maisto, President of New Faculty Majority was invited twice to speak before Congressional committees on our issues. Some of the comments following on-line articles have provided first-rate discussion of our work and its value, as can be seen following NPR’s ” Part-Time Professors Demand Higher Pay; Will Colleges Listen?” of February 3 (http://www.npr.org/2014/02/03/268427156/part-time-professors-demand-higher-pay-will-colleges-listen) – along with anti-intellectual, derogatory remarks, of course.

Although quite a few contingent faculty are moonlighting from full-time jobs in K-16 or other professions, and many, including housewives and retirees, do not want more than part-time work, growing numbers are joining unions or seeking their representation, sometimes calling on labor organizations outside of the traditional educator ones. Much work needs to be done and seemingly insurmountable barriers must be brought down, but there is also growing hope in solidarity. Contingents are getting to know each other and to know that eighty-five percent of American faculty can NOT be dismissed as the “You’re just not trying hard enough” losers of pop psychology.

About the Author:

Jean Waggoner is a part-time faculty advocate who has taught English and/or English as a Second Language at various California community colleges since the mid-1990s. She is co-author with Douglas Snow of The Freeway Flier and the Life of the Mind, a 2011 book exploring part-time faculty and marginalized scholars’ lives. She co-leads writing workshops and contributes to Riverside Press Enterprise blogs and columns for Inlandia Institute of Riverside, California. Jean has produced poetry, short stories, fine arts reviews and articles that have appeared in a variety of publications and is currently editing an American issue for Rosetta World Literatura, a literary magazine associated with Istanbul University. She is able to “fumble around” in a number of foreign languages, including Turkish and once mastered an Azerbaijani class with writing in Cyrillic at UC.L.A. Jean lives in Idyllwild, a mile high town above Palm Springs.

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Fiction Spotlight: Mandy Campbell Moore

MC Moore

Recently published by Word Riot, “Heimlich,” a short story by Mandy Campbell Moore, promises to unsettle from its eerily calm yet chilling opening line: “An ugliness blooms in Nina’s husband when their daughter is born.” The juxtaposition of these two “births”—one presumably a cause for celebration and one a cause for dismay—immediately puts us on guard. This is not the average couple with growing pains; something more has gone wrong here.

Moore continues to unsettle us, building tension between Nina and Alex through carefully selected details and gestures that define these people so well, it’s as if they’re the neighbors whose ratcheting frustrations we can’t avoid hearing through a thin, shared wall. Alex nags and controls, Nina drifts through the days, bleary and placating, and we await a violent confrontation that can’t help but explode. Then Nina makes a choice that deftly defies our expectations and leads to a heart stopping conclusion. Top notch storytelling and lucid, seamless prose make this a tale you won’t soon forget.

- Colette Sartor

About the Author:

A graduate of Antioch University’s MFA program, Mandy Campbell Moore is in the final throes of her first novel. She is a North Carolina native who lives in Los Angeles.

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Murky vs. Mystery – Narrative Lesson in ‘The Counselor’

Murky Clouds photo

Rarely have I been more disappointed in a film than The Counselor, written by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Cormac McCarthy, directed by Ridley Scott, and starring a heavyweight cast of actors that included Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Brad Pitt.

The main issue with the movie is not that the studio refused to release the director’s cut or Scott’s contention that Fox’s prudishness negatively impacted the film. The primary problem boils down to the basics of narrative construction: we did not know what our protagonist, The Counselor, wanted and his decisions, and the consequences from them, had no meaning for the audience. Even worse than a movie being boring is when you don’t care what happens.

Beginning writers often mistake murkiness with mystery. This issue was further compounded in the film when the unnamed Counselor is treated like a character archetype, without the sign posts that the audience needs to feel the universality of the main character’s problems. More blood, sex, and moralistic dialogue cannot fix such a basic problem.

The fact that such a glaring issue of storytelling escaped the attention of an experienced director, writer, cast, and studio demonstrates the importance of writers of all levels to understand and apply the basic narrative building blocks in their own work.

- Martin Ott

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Internet Literary News, February 2014 (Pre-AWP)

As many writers get ready to make the sojourn to Seattle for AWP, there’s already been a fair amount of controversy and items worth noting online. Below are a few items that caught my attention in February.

- Martin Ott

luke leia kiss

Taxing Communications Pre-AWP

Kudos to AWP for organizing the yearly migration of writers to Seattle, but many were caught surprise by the surprising tone-deaf announcement that doors would not be open to the public, a nasty backlash that rippled across Twitter and Facebook, and a late hour save by working with Seattle to find a workaround.

Now that cooler heads preside, perhaps now is the time to read a piece from Becky Tuch from Beyond the Margins: Going to AWP? Try Not to Be an Asshole.

Ethical Debate on a Poet’s Fundraising Efforts

The poetry world had its own version of the debate surrounding Dylan Farrow’s open letter about Woody Allen with an open letter from Kat Dixon to not support poet Gregory Sheryl’s fundraising efforts. Allegations of abuse became the topic of conversation on Dixon’s blog, on Twitter, and in HTML Giant.

J.K. Rowling Had Second Thoughts

The most famous love triangle since Luke’s sister kissing moments in The Empire Strikes Back comes back to the forefront when J.K. Rowling says Hermione should have married Harry, not Ron. Former literary agent turned author Nathan Bransford uses the news as an opportunity to share 3 things writers can learn from this revelation.

William S. Burroughs Turned 100

A century of Burroughs is brought into the spotlight by Davis Schneiderman on Huffington Post with his article that “explodes” five major myths about this towering literary figure.

Did the CIA Fund Creative Writing in America?

Iowa Workshop alum Eric Bennett takes a long look back at the tenure of Paul Engle and the influence of the CIA on America’s most famous writing program. Iowa Public Radio followed up with interviews looking into the possibilities of a connection between the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the CIA, while Press-Citizen.com thought that Bennett’s  essay came up short and that the Cold War, not the CIA, influenced the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

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Why I Never Write Negative Book Reviews

Guest Post by Stacia M. Fleegal

Stacia M. Fleegal photo

A few years ago, I decided to up my good writer karma by writing more book reviews.

I’ve been editor of Blood Lotus for eight years now, and for the past two years, a blogger on regional poetry through the newspaper where I work, and I can say beyond any doubt that one of the greatest perks of (often unpaid) literary work is the community you become part of – a community you otherwise  would know nothing about.

At the end of the TV show “Sex and the City”—this is related, trust me—Carrie looks at her three best friends and, instead of saying goodbye, asks, “What if I had never met you?” And the camera pans all of their faces as they convincingly fall apart, are devastated, by the weight of that question.

I look at my bookshelves and wonder the same thing sometimes. How many of these books would never have moved me if I only gave my time and energy to something when I was being paid? God, who would I even BE right now?

Maybe, though, my motivation for writing book reviews is different than others’.

Certainly, I’m not an academic. I’m not dissecting literature through this or that trendy critical lens.

When I decide to tell someone about a book, it’s because I loved it, or things about it, sentences or cadences or certain narratives that I believe deserve a larger audience.

It’s because, and laugh or roll your eyes if you want, the book has become a friend.

I’m not trying to change the literary landscape with a review. I’m not trying to impose my tastes onto the reading world.

And I’m not trying to talk shit on other writers.

Good reviews versus bad reviews – I don’t want to live in a world where there’s only one or the other, believe me. No one likes a sycophant. So much has been written on this topic, too. For my part, I’m sticking to the personal. The way I see it, a book review should do one or more of the following: 1) inform, 2) recommend, 3) highlight key literary device(s), and/or 4) frame the work in the larger context of literature.

If you like a book that you’re reviewing, you are informing a reader about the book (where to buy, a little about the author, etc.), recommending the book to others, demonstrating that you can intelligently discuss what you like about the book so the reader trusts your opinion, and perhaps making a statement about where that book fits into the canon of books out there to consume.

By these standards, if your review has nothing nice to say, what are you accomplishing? You’re 1) informing the reader not to buy a book, 2) recommending against buying a book (which at this point is just redundant), 3) highlighting what’s not working, or what you don’t like, and/or 4) framing larger problems in literature.

Except…when was the last time you read a horrible, scathing review of someone’s work and thought,

wow, I really learned something about literature today? If you know the author, do you think, wow, I change my mind about previous work by that person that I’ve read and thought I enjoyed? If you don’t know the author, do you really decide to never read anything by her/him again?

The exception, in my opinion, is when a reviewer takes on a classic or a New York Times bestseller. If someone writes an articulate, thoughtful, seemingly agenda-free hate piece on The Catcher in the Rye or Harry Potter, that in and of itself might add to the conversation of American letters. If everyone loves something and you can make a smart argument against it, can make people think, then go for it.

But what does slamming a hand-stitched first chapbook of an unknown indie poet do for that conversation? Or for anyone? I mean, it makes you look like a jerkface, but that’s about it. I firmly believe we can learn from work we don’t enjoy reading, but do we have to do that learning in the public space of a published book review?

Look. I have, like, zero free time. I don’t want to spend hours mired in negativity to churn out a review. To me, it’s akin to spending hours letting someone bore me to death at a bar, rather than having a drink with a few close friends. I want to devote my time to promoting someone deserving of the little bit  of attention I can give her/him. Wouldn’t it be a better, more karmic use of my time to write lengthy reviews of books I like? And if I must wax sarcastic or unimpressed, merely list, like a comprehensive PSA, those books I wish I’d never “met”?

I view book reviewing as arts advocacy. So I guess the real question becomes: Is it an act of advocacy to criticize—to essentially tell a reader, “don’t read [this]”?

If you aren’t advocating for the written word in a book review, why are you writing book reviews?

About the Author:

Stacia M. Fleegal is the author of Versus (BlazeVOX, 2011), Anatomy of a Shape-Shifter (WordTech, 2010), and three chapbooks, most recently antidote (Winged City Press, 2013). Her poems have recently appeared in Best of the Net 2011Fourth River, North American Review, and Mud Luscious, have been nominated for Best of the Net 2012, three times nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and are forthcoming in Barn Owl Review, Knockout, and Crab Creek Review (2013 poetry contest honorable mention)She co-founded (in 2006) and co-edits the online literary journal Blood Lotus and runs a poetry blog called Versify for the York Daily Record/Sunday News, where she is a journalist.

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The Poetry of Sherman Alexie’s War Dances

Unknown

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to better utilize the lengthy commute to my job by the Los Angeles airport. Another is to read more in 2014 than in 2013. Another is to be more budget conscious. Multi-tasker that I am, I decided to combine all of these resolutions together in the form of library audio books.

So I went to the Los Feliz Public Library and was embarrassed to discover that my old library card had gone inactive and I needed to fill out a new form. My first selection with my new card was War Dances by Sherman Alexie.I have read a number of Alexie’s stories and poems in magazines over the years, but hadn’t yet read one of his books.

War Dances is a combo platter of short stories, flash fiction, and essayistic vignettes. I was quite moved by Alexie’s ability to weave hardscrabble stories with complex themes and layered mythologies while still managing to shape the stories in a way that made it seem like your literate uncle was sitting down next to you and sharing a story from his life. Alexie’s voice was hypnotic for my commute that week, and I instantly became aware of poetic threads throughout his work::

  • Bookend poems that help frame the collection
  • Odes to mix tapes, sweethearts, and pay phones
  • Imbedded poems within stories

What strikes me most, however, is that there is little difference between the poetry and the prose. The poems have the same accessibility and humor of Alexie’s prose, and the prose contains aspects of what might be considered narrative poetry. For example, I’m not sure I’ve encountered a prose writer who so effectively and continuously utilizes repetition. Nouns are repeated throughout the book in a singsong flurry, mostly in groups of threes. In the story Invisible Dog on a Leash, the protagonist states: “Isn’t it cool to live in Bigfoot country? In the heart of Bigfoot country? In the heart of the heart of Big foot country?”

There are also multiple examples of meditations on things, that remind me of object poems, from the bat in Breaking and Entering, to the owl in Bird Watching at Night, to the cockroach in War Dances. There are also a few times where Alexie provides clinical or dictionary definitions of certain words, then use the word in a metaphor or analogy. In The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless, the protagonist defines “microlender” in the context of a woman he is interested in, then later uses it in a different context to define his relationship with his daughter.

Even though I occasionally become annoyed when it felt like the author’s voice intruded into the stories, I happily listened to War Dances twice. I’m pretty sure that the fiction writer and poet inside of me won’t have to get into a fistfight for me to select another book of Alexie’s for a future week of commutes.

- Martin Ott

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MFA Update – Poet in New York

Guest Post by Christopher Soto

Christopher Soto Photo

A few months ago I wrote on this blog about my pre-MFA experience (traveling and writing before beginning my studies at NYU). And now, if it’s alright, I’d like to update you on how my first semester went… I intend to focus on detailing the poetry culture surrounding the MFA program at NYU.

So, the program is situated within the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House. The house is located in the heart of Greenwich Village with a plethora of shops, cafes, restaurants, and bookstores around. Aside from one “Master’s Class” offered to undergraduate students (and taught by Marie Howe this semester) there are no other undergraduate classes or departments using the Creative Writer’s House. Thus, it’s only your poems and your MFA cohort occupying this private Greenwich Village townhouse, along a quiet tree-lined street off Sixth Avenue. So cute!

Some of my favorite memories from this semester have been merely writing and reading in this house. I find myself delving into books of poetry, next to a classmate in the common room, our attention only broken by the footsteps of Sharon Olds walking down the stairway. She will comment on the weather or the shine of the freshly polished handrails or just say a quick “hello” before we, students, immerse ourselves back into our books.

Anyways, in NYU’s MFA program a full course load is 8 credits per semester (one craft course, one workshop course). Classes are usually held Mondays, Tuesdays, or Wednesdays. This semester I took Charles Simic for my workshop (on Monday evenings) and Major Jackson for my craft (on Tuesday evenings). Each class meets once a week for three hours, so the course load is not too overbearing. Most everyone in the program is very self-motivated and has great passion for poetry. So the light course load is seen as an opportunity for independent study, not an opportunity for laziness. It is a place where intellectuality and creativity are cherished and encouraged. So the seats are usually filled before and after scheduled classes with students doing independent work.

The program staff, and faculty, and your classmates will let you know about journals that are accepting publications, upcoming readings in town, books that you must read, fellowships and retreats that you should apply for, they will help you workshop your poems outside of class, anything you need. I have found the community of poets at NYU to be extremely hospitable, informative, and also pretty damn diverse (for academia).

In my cohort there are people of different genders, sexualities, races, ages, economic classes, from geographical locations, everything! It seems as if everyone comes from vastly different lived experiences, is writing in different forms, and emulating/challenging different parts of the poetry cannon. We support each other in our diversity and promote a culture that celebrates each other’s differences and similarities.

When not in class, or doing independent work, students often congregate at the plethora of readings at the Writer’s House. The readings hosted by the MFA program usually occur every Thursday and Friday evening and bring in a menagerie of your favorite poets.  You’ll find yourself sitting next to Philip Levine listening to Yusef Komunyakaa recite poems, or chatting with Sherman Alexie over wine and cheese in the reception area after his reading.

On Friday nights, there is also the student run reading series at the KGB Bar. So after the Writer’s House events on Fridays, people walk over to KGB together for some drinks and to mingle in a bit more rowdy of an environment. Those readings are usually filled with more grunts, and moans, and heckles and laughs than the prim and composed readings at the Writers House. But both are equally enjoyable. NYU students also frequent readings at Columbia, the New School, and throughout the other boroughs of NYC. Oh, and there are also sporadic panels/presentations/classes by visiting poets and publishers on Friday afternoons.

Many students also run their own reading series, or journals, or work for a publishing company or any variety of other literary organizations. Some students also get involved with Washington Square Review, the literary journal at NYU.

After a few weeks in the MFA program, it will begin to seem as if every writer (and publisher) lives within a few miles of you. And for the most part, it’s true. Several times, I’ve found myself finishing up a book and looking at the author bio to see that they live in Brooklyn. Several times I’ve emailed such poets and met up with them for lunch. There is so much community to discover and explore in NYC, I find it quite invigorating.

Lastly, I’d like to close this article with advice for prospective MFA students at NYU (or any poet seeking candidacy in another MFA program or any poet trying to “make it” in NYC or…). Remember that you are not building a network, you are building a community. You are excited to meet all of these poets and publishers because you appreciate their work and share a mutual admiration for the craft of poetry. Remember to not use people as a means to an end, to not look at them for their “network.” Remember that (even with your MFA degree and fancy new poetry friends) you will likely not be making money off of poetry. You will likely not become famous because of your poetry. But in the odd chance that you do become “famous” and make “money” off your poetry, remember that isn’t what you went into your MFA for. Remember that you went into your MFA to learn more about poetry, to be around other people who were also passionate about poetry, and to write the best damn poems you could.

About the Author

Christopher Soto (aka Loma) is a queer latin@ punk poet who is concerned with dismantling patriarchy and white supremacy.  They are currently curating Nepantla, an e-journal dedicated to queer poets of color, in collaboration with The Lambda Literary Foundation. They have work forthcoming from Columbia: A Journal, Acentos Review,  Anti-, and more. They are an MFA candidate in Poetry at NYU.

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Filed under Guest Blog Post, Poetry, Uncategorized

Misplaced Person: Anton DiSclafani

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Here’s another in a series of interviews about writers and place. This time it’s Anton DiSclafani: Tennessean, Floridian, St. Louisan.

The title of Anton Disclafani’s debut novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls, is a trap. It sounds…pretty. Yonahlossee. So pretty. Say it three times while jangling your spurs and you might be transported to a sylvan fantasia with gurgling streams, crisp mountain air, youthful maidens astride loyal, stately beasts. And, well, it’s for girls. How dangerous could that be? But once locked in this novel, shackled to the narrative and the language, one finds that it’s gorgeous, yes, but treacherous, jagged, thorny, not a safe space at all. Following Thea Atwell through her depression-era Florida and North Carolina ain’t pretty at all. And that’s the way we like it.

- David Schuman

Where do you come from, originally?

I was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and lived there until I was seven; then Davie, Florida until I was eleven; then Ocala, Florida until college.  I think of Ocala as my home, simply because I lived there longest, and remember it best.

What geographical area would you say defines you as a person and maybe also as a writer? This can be a specific place (New York, Cleveland) or a geographical element (mountains, prairies, ocean). How has this place or element defined your work, if it all?

In my first book, the mountains inform so much of the story.  They’re there from the very beginning.  The main character moves from flat, hot Florida to cool, mountainous North Carolina, and that move–the cognitive effects of going from one place to the other–is very much a part of the novel.  I prefer the mountains to any other landscape.  If I had my druthers, I’d have a mountain home.

My new book is set in Houston, Texas, and there is very little of the natural world in it, at least so far.  I’m writing about a city, instead, which is a bit of a shift from my first book.

Writing about a city kind of feels like writing about a person; writing about the natural world feels like writing about something else entirely, if that makes sense.  The natural world is permanent, or at least a lot more permanent than we are; when I was writing my first book I liked the idea that I was, essentially, writing about the same mountains that my character would have seen one hundred years ago.  Buildings are a reflection of the times, of the people who build them:  some of the buildings in 1950s Texas were almost impossibly ugly.  But I like writing about that manmade setting, a setting that is changeable and personable and meant to be receptive to its citizens. But there is nothing otherworldly (to me) about a building.  We build them, we tear them down.  They have character, but not permanence.  On the other hand, there’s something magical about the natural world.  We don’t know it, we’ll never know it.

Describe where you are now–describe a few things you’ve learned about this new place that have surprised/frightened/frustrated you?

I live in Saint Louis, Missouri, where I’ve lived for nine years, the longest I’ve lived any place.  I really like St. Louis, but I think I could like any place, given enough time.  I ride horses, and I like that I can drive out of the city and be in the country (at least semi-country) in half an hour.

How has your current location filtered into your work or your writing life?

This is the first place I’ve lived that’s had four definite seasons, so I write about seasons now, in my work.  That’s a very explicit answer.  On a different level, I like how uncrowded St. Louis feels, for a city.  There’s lots of space to write.

About the Author:

Anton DiSclafani’s first novel, THE YONAHLOSSEE RIDING CAMP FOR GIRLS, was a New York Times bestseller, an Indie Next pick and bestseller, and longlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.  It was named a most anticipated book of the summer by The Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly, and was a summer book pick by USA Today and National Public Radio.

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Filed under Fiction, Interview, Uncategorized, Writing