Monthly Archives: July 2012

Pin It on Starbucks?

I don’t want to be that guy. You know the one – who rants about the good old days and what we have lost from mega corporations. Unfortunately, I can’t help myself.

I drink too much caffeine for my own good. And while I try to support by local coffee establishments, I have a Starbucks several blocks from my work and home. Sometimes, the convenience pulls me in. While I am waiting for my double latte (non-fat!), I can’t help but notice that Starbucks has taken down the pin-up boards that held neighborhood posts for  local writers, musicians, yoga teachers, acting classes, etc.

Someone in Starbucks marketing must have determined that it was a pretty messy business, and replaced the pin up boards with a magnetic board (with only a couple of magnets per location). I remember reading that the original intent of Starbucks was to create community, and like many grown-up companies, its corporate brand police has caught up to insure consistency of look and feel.

Funny, thing is that the crowds at both Starbucks I occasionally visit may also not be interested in community. The coffee sippers stare down at their screens, content with their free wifi, and barely anyone says a word. I’d like to pin this trend on Starbucks, but we are the ones that are deciding who to give our business to and what kind of communities we want to have and live in.

– Martin Ott

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Writeliving Interview – Rick Bursky

The next writer in the Writeliving interview series is one of LA’s best poets: Rick Bursky. Not only is he a triple threat – poet, ad guy, photographer – but he has also been a good friend and great source of inspiration.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

There are so many poets, writers, painters, photographers and musicians whose work I’ve leaned on for inspiration, influence and just plain pleasure. Though the word pleasure seems so thin in this context. But it’s important to constantly immerse ourselves in art, to read great stuff to be reminded of the possibility of beauty and the challenges that come with it. Just some of the poets include Nin Andrews, Charles Simic, Richard Garcia, Laura Kasischke, David Young, David Keplinger, Yannis Ritsos, Alexis Orgera, Dean Young, Stan Rice, Edward Hopper; Rene Magritte, Ian Randall Wilson, Michael Kenna, Lorca; the list can go on and on. Just answering your question reminds me of the debt I owe so many others. Sometimes I think of myself as a reader who sometimes writes. Teaching has also been a wonderful influence on my writing. For instance, teaching the prose poem and introducing students to its many possibilities has sent me on a prose poem binge. Same thing for the ghazal. One of a teachers responsibilities it to inspire students and instill enthusiasm, I’m also a student in my classes.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

My poems probably fall into four or five categories. For most of them it starts with a line. In the first couple of drafts that’s the opening line of the poem but in subsequent versions it moves down or disappears, the line is simply a trigger. I try to write line by line. Make as statement, a line, move on. I’ll often change the subject from line to line. Write a line. Move on. That’s my preferred way to work. I’m writing poems, not stories. I really like the quote, “narrative in a poem is like a almond in a Hershey bar, nice but not necessary,” I think it was Charles Wright who said that. I’m always looking, searching praying, begging for a line to start with. My notebooks are filled with failed starts.  For instance, “it’s simply a coincidence that all the women I’ve ever loved kept anteaters as pets” is a line that floated around for years before it became a poem.

Another way into a poem for me is an image. A man stands on street corner balancing a bowling pin on his head. I just wrote that as an example but I sort of like it. I’ll probably spend the next couple of weeks seeing where that goes. I used to be a photographer. Now I think of myself as a photographer too lazy to go out and look for photographs so I write them out, poems.

Someone once accused me of simply finding strange or interesting historical facts and calling them prose poems. For instance, I wrote about how people first got started photographing children on ponies, wrote about the Brotherhood of Travelling Postcard Photographers in France and how they helped the allied air forces bomb the Germans, wrote that according to the United Nations being killed by bee stings is the 247th most common way to be killed, explained what happened to the single photograph that was taken of George Washington, etc, etc – it’s all made up. But that’s another way I work, an unusual faux fact filtered through language.

Then there’s another poem, a series of poems, I’ve been writing for about twenty years, though I didn’t know they were connected in any way for the first eight or so years. All of these poems take place on a small, ignored island in the Mediterranean where the main source of work is fishing. They could be Greeks, Italians or who knows. I write about life on there.

No matter which poems I’m working on they all start as scribbled lines in a notebook, and I write everything with a fountain pen. I don’t write on a computer, I type on that. Once I get past a couple of good drafts of a poem I type it on the computer, then carrying it in my pocket for a week making revisions and notes. Once I’m sort of happy I let a couple of friends read it and see what they think. Then back to revising.

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

Your question suggests that I’ve overcome adversity. The jury is still out on that one. Life is always uphill, if it’s not one thing it’s another. I don’t think I’ve had any more adversity it my life than any other person, perhaps even less than some. You get up in the morning and to work. Some day’s it’s harder than others. Bills come in the mail. Death comes. Lovers leave. Things happen. You can’t sleep, spend nights staring at the ceiling and wondering what comes next. But if you’re a writer you write. No excuses. You write something, anything, sometimes it’s even good. Writing has never been a dream, it’s what I do. Winning the lottery is something I dream of. And come to think of it, as soon as I win I’ll revise this and write that winning the lottery has helped me overcome adversity. Until then, ouch. Of course, good friends, good cigars, good wine and good poetry are essentials.

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

I don’t believe in talent or inspiration. If you want to be a writer you write. Anyone could be a good poet. Great poet is another story. I make up for lack of talent by working hard. And inspiration? Nonsense. A poet should live an inspired life.  That’s not something you wait for. That’s something you go out and get.

About the Author:

Rick Bursky’s most recent book , Death Obscura was published by Sarabande Books.  His previous book, The Soup of Something Missing, was published by Bear Star Press. He’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize four times. His poems have appeared in many journals including American Poetry Review, Field, Iowa Review, Gettysburg Review, Conduit, Prairie Schooner, Black Warrior Review, Shenandoah, and Hotel Amerika. Bursky works in advertising and is an adjunct at USC and teaches at UCLA Extension.

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Fiction Spotlight – Eugenio Volpe

Lately, Facebook has become more and more a great source of writing inspiration as friends share articles, poems and stories. Yesterday, Colette Sartor posted a link for a short shory American Idle by Eugenio Volpe on Spork Press, which I have since read several times.

The story is a great example of an author using humor to lower the reader’s guard against a powerful dramatic storyline, as well as creating a lens – favorite songs – as a way to quickly create multi-dimensional characters. Please give American Idle a try, and let me know what you think.

Martin Ott

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The Cool Feel of Santa Monica Review

I like literary magazines with classic paper covers. It’s not that I don’t like design-y magazines, it’s just that there’s something great about journals that look like they were created to gather dust in the basement of a university library (isn’t that kind of romantic?) instead of occupying a place of prominence on mid-century modern coffee tables in Dumbo. It’s like, “Look, I found this weird pamphlet thingy in my grandfather’s attic and it has a short story he wrote from 1952!” Yeah, I like those kinds of journals.

The Spring 2012 issue of Santa Monica Review has a nice cream paper cover with artwork by Mark Vallen; sort of Patrick Nagel meets Edvard Munch.

There’s a great story by Roberto Ontiveros called Curfew, which challenges the idea that a protagonist needs to want something, or at least that what he or she wants needs to be clear. Curfew is murky, all the relationships inside it are slightly askew: a neighbor the narrator doesn’t know well, a woman in a strange not-romance with said neighbor. Nobody matters all that much to each other in the story, and yet yearning pulses throughout. There’s also a great story from the madly inventive storyist, Katya Apekina, My Smell Journal: [orange peels, ink, coffee filters]. Full disclosure—I know Katya—but I don’t think it’s illegal for me to say she’s madly inventive. Read it and see for yourself. There’s a machine in it that records smells and an oily whale stuck in the Gowanus Canal. There are other good stories and nonfiction in SMR. Order a copy, read it, let it get lost and grow a little dusty.

David Schuman

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Writeliving Interview – Pam Houston

I am thrilled to feature our first fiction writer in our interview series – Pam Houston. I have been reading her work for almost 20 years now (better be careful not to date me or Pam too much!).

Soon, I plan on announcing a new blogger to join the Writeliving team. In the meantime, enjoy the interview and feel free to comment.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

It has been suggested to me that the poet, Larry Levis has been the very most influential writer to my work, and it may be true. He taught poetry at Utah when I was there studying fiction, and though I was too scared to take a class from him, (and man, do I regret that) he was writing The Widening Spell of the Leaves at that time, and I paid really close attention to how he made that book. That book taught me about making associative leaps (wild ones, and yet, in retrospect, inevitable somehow), which is, in my opinion, the most fun a writer can have, the thing that keeps the process always new and exciting. It may be true that he, more than anyone else, taught me what to reach for in my work. I feel like there could never be a conclusive list of writers whose work I have read that has left an imprint on my own, but a few of my strongest influences follow: Ron Carlson’s work taught me pacing, and how to bump humor right up against pathos as many times as the story can bear. Lorie Moore’s work taught me the particular way humor works for a female. Toni Morrison taught me the importance of making my characters multiple, no heroes, no villains, and also the unlimited number of layers a story can have. Russell Banks’ stories taught me how form follows function. Richard Ford’s Rock Springs taught me that the landscape of the west has its own voice, and Gretel Ehrlich convinced me that I had a place in it. Tim O’Brien’s work introduced me to the rich territory that exists between fiction and nonfiction. Jack Driscoll taught me that if you don’t risk sentimentality you are not in the ballpark.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?


I feel like my first job as a writer is to pay really strict attention out in the world, and then to bring the resonant images, scenes, moments, glimmers, back to the page with me and turn them into language. Every single thing I have ever written has begun with the question, “What glimmered at me lately?” In this way I am sort of a collagist. I don’t ever say, for example, “I think I would like to write a story about…., or, “I have an idea for a character who…” I pay strict attention, both to what is going on in my physical proximity, and also to whenever something that is happening out there in the exterior landscape resonates with what is happening in my interior landscape. I trust those shivers of recognition more than I trust anything. Whether I am at a sky burial in Tibet, or in the check out line at the Whole Foods, hearing the crack of my turned ankle on an ancient stair in Greece, or listening to the sound of goat bells over the sound of the waves of the Agean…I collect those, and do my best to represent them fully in language, and then combine them with other resonant glimmers and they cook for a while in there and over time, a story emerges.

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


Well, I am not sure this really qualifies as adversity, but it is a nice story. I went to graduate school at the University of Utah, and my work was pretty much uniformly disliked by all of the fiction teachers there. David Kranes, the playwright, liked it pretty well, but in my years there I collected a stack of evaluations, the worst of which said, no kidding, “Pam should find something else to do with her hands.” It was my class at Utah, along with some professors, that started the conference called Writers At Work in Park City, and one of the things we got in exchange for our volunteer work on the conference was a 30 minute one-on-one with a visiting writer, editor, or agent. Because I had become so convinced at Utah that my work was awful, I had turned in the name of three writers on my preference sheet, and when they hung up the pairings I didn’t find my name anywhere, and when I asked, the woman at the desk said, “Oh, sorry, all of the people you chose had full plates, so we couldn’t get you in.”
This was pretty much the way I was used to being treated at Utah, and it was pretty much the way I had been treated in my family of origin, which is likely why I picked Utah, so I just sucked it up and walked away. But Shannon Ravenel, who was one of the editors at the conference (Best American Short Stories series editor all through the 80’s, founder of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.) followed me out of the ballroom, and said, “You know, my plate is not full. If you have a copy of a story you want to give me, I would be happy to read it.” Now let me just say that this was an entirely unprompted act of kindness on Shannon’s part. She had no reason to think I was any good, in fact, I was not, at that time, very good (though not quite as bad as my professors said). She had simply witnessed my dismissal by the pairing lady, and reached out to me in a human way.
 Shannon read my story, and was so excited about it, she showed it to Carol Houck Smith, a W.W. Norton editor at that conference. She also called her friend, agent Liz Darhansoff, and told her to contact me. Pretty much my entire career grew out of that moment of un-asked for kindness. Carol was my editor until the time of her death, and I have published five books with W.W. Norton. Liz Darhansoff is still my editor to this day.

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


That I was Chaplin of Delta Delta Delta sorority at Denison University, which meant I was in charge of 80 girls “spirituality” when I was little more than a girl myself. But perhaps you mean something less silly than that. When I was four years old and my mother was a night club singer, I would go to the bar with her, wearing my thigh high white boots and sing “These Boots Were Made For Walking,” and at the part in the song where Nancy Sinatra always said, “Come on, Boots, start walkin!” I would walk across the top of the baby grand. Only marginally less silly. How about this? Nothing terrifies me quite like the prospect of playing co-ed softball.

About the author:

Pam Houston’s most recent book is Contents May Have Shifted, published in 2012, by W.W. Norton.  She is also the author of two collections of linked short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, the novel, Sight Hound, and a collection of essays called A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton. Her stories have been selected for volumes of Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, and Best American Short Stories of the Century.  She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA award for contemporary fiction, and The Evil Companions Literary Award and multiple teaching awards.  She is the Director of Creative Writing at U.C. Davis and teaches in The Pacific University low residency MFA program, and at writer’s conferences around the country and the world.  She lives on a ranch at 9,000 feet in Colorado near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

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