Monthly Archives: June 2012

What’s in the Black Box by Jennifer Egan

Originally, I thought I was going to write a blog post about what it was like to read Jennifer Egan’s story Black Box on Twitter, but I actually found that my attention span made it impossible for me to read it that way. For me, the jury is out on Twitter as a delivery method for either poems or fiction.

However, after I finished the story Black Box the old-fashioned way in the actual The New Yorker magazine, it struck me that Egan’s story reminded me a form of poetry: instructions. There are many examples of different poems with “lessons” and poets giving instructions on how to sing, love,  or even drown.

That got me to thinking about other similarities between poetic and short fiction forms. Jeffrey Levine, editor of Tupelo Press, once said in a workshop that all poems are really list poems. Some fiction writers have tapped into this reservoir of inspiration as well. One of my all-time favorite stories – The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien – is nothing more than a list.

One thing that Egan and O’Brien both did in tapping into these forms was to keep a narrative arc moving, something that Sandra Cisneros also manages to do in her short story Eleven, which uses another staple of the poet, repetition, to help describe the frustration of her young narrator.

All of this has now got me wondering whether I can create a short story that’s a recipe, incantation or curse. There is value in looking for inspiration outside of your own form to help you think outside of the (black) box in your own writing.

Martin Ott

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Filed under Fiction, Poetry, Uncategorized, Writing Tips

Enter a Mysterious Galaxy of Authors

Mysterious Galaxy bookstore is putting on a local author meet and greet in Redondo Beach from 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM on Saturday, June 23. This is a great example of an independent bookstore reaching out to both its local authors and readers with a unique event.

One of the featured authors will be novelist, journalist and blogger Dmitri Ragano, who was featured in the April blog post Great American Novel 2.0. Feel free to enjoy the light appetizers and spirits, and ask him about his process for successfully self-publishing and promoting his well-reviewed novel Employee of the Year.

Other notable authors include Todd McCaffrey, co-author of Dragon’s Time: Dragonriders of Pern, Gary Phillips, author of Monkology and Linda O. Johnston, author of Hounds Abound.

There looks to be a wide mix of genre fiction and it’s a great way to get to spend time with dragons, private detectives, Martians, zombies and the authors that create them.

Martin Ott

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Perceptions of a Literary Magazine

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from John F. Buckley letting me know that one of the magazines that published a poem from our newest collaboration Yankee Broadcast Network looked fantastic. My mail came later that day with a  contributor copy of Perceptions, a literary magazine from Mt. Hood Community College in Oregon.

Starting with a cutout of the letters on the front cover to each page with unique design elements, Perceptions really made me want to turn the pages. Inside, was a combination of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, along with photography and artwork throughout, and a bonus of two CDs of Music & Spoken Word, and Film.

Reading Perceptions made me nostalgic for college again with work that took on the spectrum of political and social issues, both local and global, with some work a little too on the nose, and other work that hits you like a good college rock anthem. Props to Megan Jones, the editor, and baylee Brown and Jordenn Luff, the graphic designers. Works worthy of special attention include the poem Configuration of Cards: A Poker Poem by Changming Yuan and the short story The Cars by Ana Garcia Bergua (translated by Toshiya Camei).

Martin Ott

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Writeliving Interview – Garrett Hongo

It is a pleasure to kick off the Writeliving interview series with esteemed writer, editor and professor Garrett Hongo.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Three poets–my teachers, Bert Meyers, whom I studied with as an undergraduate, and Charles Wright, who was my MFA teacher at UC Irvine; then, from reading and study, Derek Walcott, who was an early inspiration and continues to be.  Beyond these, I’d say the playwright and short story writer Wakako Yamauchi, who basically brought me along as a young writer, mentoring me about Japanese American history from her perspective as a Nisei who was a teenager in the camps, and who gave me an emotional relationship to it.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I usually don’t know what I’m doing for a while.  Then, I write a kind of “breakthrough” poem that serves as a kind of polestar of feeling, style, or emotional center.  It was thus with the last two books of poetry and my memoir, VOLCANO.  I say “poem” for VOLCANO too as there is a poem that is at the book’s core.  Basically, I write poems directed towards that seminal poem that acts as a sort of polestar for the entire book’s composition.  For THE RIVER OF HEAVEN, it was “The Legend.”  For VOLCANO, it was the poem “The Unreal Dwelling” from THE RIVER OF HEAVEN.  For CORAL ROAD, it was “Elegy, Kahuku,” the final poem in the published book.

These set the tone for the work, the emotional center, and ask of me lyric and emotional questions which then the other poems address.  I think a good, long while, as I said, and many ideas that came to me earlier then emerge as part of the creative responses to the core poem’s questions.  I wrote “The Wartime Letters of Hideo Kubota” and “The Art of Fresco” sections of CORAL ROAD to address how two different generations of Japanese Americans experienced the same historical event–WW II–one as a DOJ detainee in Arizona and the other as an American soldier in Italy.  I wrote the other two sections–“Coral Road” and “A Map of Kahuku in Oregon” as my own personal responses to the immigration history and my feelings of descent and legacy from all these histories.  Some want to know about style, voice, the so-called “craft” issues.  These aren’t that much at issue for me, as I’ve practiced poetry for a good while now and have a lot of those things worked out.  In essence, though, I’d have to say that I think I’ve developed a style that takes narrative structures derived from the historical archive of dramatic monologues (mainly in English, but also in translations from Dante’s Italian, Virgil’s and Ovid’s Latin, and the Japanese of Zeami Motokiyo).  It also derives its imagistic style from Pound’s Chinese and Anglo-Saxon translations in CATHAY.  The long line I worked at a good, long while and might have affinities with the verse paragraph of Wordsworth, the conversation poems of Coleridge, and Derek Walcott’s iambics.  It’s more vague to me how I came up with it, but it’s not Whitmanic as so many critics have claimed.  My teachers have helped me develop an ear–all of them–but I think the style and voice are all my own.

What did it take to develop this style?  Many years of practice so that it’s how I “hear” any poem I compose.  It’s the muse.

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

Well, nothing out of the ordinary, I guess.  My father was always supportive of whatever I wanted to do, but my mother was dead set against my doing anything except pre-med or pre-law as an undergrad, dead set on me going to UCLA.  I wanted to go to Pomona College, its private tuition paid for by the California State Scholarship Commission, a program created by then-Governor Pat Brown, Jerry Brown’s father.  I needed room and board somehow.  My mother refused to cover it.  We had a fight, etc.  In the end, she said “Not one red cent,” but my father turned around and signed over his BMW to me.  It was an unusual car then and his pride and joy.  I drove it for a summer, sold it, and I had my room and board for the first year.  After that, I supported myself through a summer job that my mother helped me get!

Pomona College was the beginning of my writing dream, really.  It was there I first heard living poets–Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, Seamus Heaney, Gwendolyn Brooks, Diane Wakoski, and others.  I studied literature and art and East Asian languages.  Without it, I doubt I’d have been able to have the dream at all.  When I graduated, I won a fellowship that gave me a year of wandering around Japan, writing poetry.

Later adversities were also substantial–economic, cultural, social–but nothing as clear-cut as my mother refusing to pay for my college education. So, in a way, it wasn’t so much that I prevailed over adversity, but that my father did.

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

I’m a dedicated audiophile and music lover.  My wife says I’ve spent more on stereo gear than I would have on a midlife Beamer.  She’s probably right.  I’m into vinyl, have a collection of over 2,000 LPs, and have a turntable with two arms–one for mono and one for stereo LPs.  I play mostly classical and opera, but also 50s/60s jazz and 60s/70s rock.  I write reviews, travel articles, and audio show coverage for two audio magazines.

About the author:

Garrett Hongo was born in Volcano, Hawai`i in 1951.  He grew up in Kahuku and Hau`ula on the island of O`ahu and moved to Los Angeles when he was six, much to his everlasting regret.  He complained so, when he was eight, his parents sent him to live in Wahiawā and Waimalu with relatives who hated him so much, they stuffed him on a plane back to L.A. within a year.  His schooling was at Gardena High School, Pomona College, and UC Irvine.  He directed the Asian Exclusion Act from 1975-77.  He has taught at USC, Irvine, Missouri, Houston, Vanderbilt, and Oregon, where he directed the MFA Program in Creative Writing from 1989-93. Author of three books of poetry, including Coral Road  (Knopf, 2011), Hongo has edited anthologies and also published a book of non-fiction entitled Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai`i (Knopf, 1995). Not among the falsehoods on his resume are fellowships from the NEA, Rockefeller Foundation, and Guggenheim Foundation, and the Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He is presently completing a book of non-fiction entitled The Perfect Sound: An Autobiography in Stereo.  He lives in Eugene, Oregon, where they call him, among other things, Distinguished Professor of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Oregon.

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A Reading to Crow About

Yesterday,  John F. Buckley and I went to Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena as part of an anthology reading for A Bird Black As the Sun: California Poets on Crows and Ravens.

This was, without a doubt, one of the best readings I have ever attended, with each poet getting a chance to read one poem from the anthology, and another poem loosely connected.

There were a dozen stellar poets that presented:

– Maureen Alsop

– Cynthia Anderson

– Cathryn Andresen

– John F. Buckley/Martin Ott

– Jeanette Clough

– Mary Fitzpatrick

– Noreen Lawlor

– Friday Lubina

– Jim Natal

– Enid Osborn

– Halie Rosenberg

– Jackson Wheeler

Every poet was strong and their work was varied, and the atmosphere was laid back as the topic of crows and ravens evoked everything from poem raps to personal stories about the birds to one poet sharing a striking tattoo of them.

John and I were able to read two poems from out upcoming: Poets’ Guide to America on Brooklyn Arts Press.

If I wore a hat, it would be off to Enid Osborn and Cynthia Anderson who painstakingly put the anthology out on Green Poet Press, and are two of the coolest women and poets you are likely to ever meet. The vibe at both of the readings they hosted that I attended was, well, cool as ravens.

Martin Ott

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My Video Journeys

Last night, I ran into my favorite video store Video Journeys in Silverlake to return a movie. As is often the case, I ended up in a conversation with one of the knowledgeable staff about the research I was doing for my rewrite of a Mississippi River adventure, and how few movies follow treks down river.

I walked out of the store with a copy of the under-rated The River Wild (good dialogue and a strong performance by Meryl Streep) as well as an even deeper appreciation for a small business that is fighting for its existence in the world of Netflix, Hulu and Redbox.

I first visited this store nearly twenty years before (when I still lived in San Francisco) visiting my friend Andy. We’d drive all the way from The Brewery in Lincoln Heights to browse through a seemingly endless selection of independent, foreign and animated films.

Before social media, this was the place local film nerds and movie buffs congregated, and I find myself wondering about how long it can fight to stay in business (recently it downsized to a space half its previous size).

As writers, we value these independent venues, but are sometimes just as lazy as others in getting our entertainment digitally. Who would have ever thought we would ever be able to stuff so much art in our pockets, and the impact to some of institutions: book stores, libraries, local theaters and video stores?

Before traveling to other countries, I have a longstanding habit to visit Video Journeys to rent films from the place I will be visiting, and I find myself hoping that this is something I will be able to do for another twenty (or more) years.

Martin Ott

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