Monthly Archives: April 2013

Writeliving Interview – Charles Harper Webb

I first met and became acquainted with the work of Charles Harper Webb more than 15 years ago, and I think of him as one of our essential Southern California writers. I’m thrilled that he took the time to give us a look into his writing life.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

I’ve had a lot of influences, so I apologize to those I’m leaving out.  That being said . . .

My parents—both avid readers and language aficionados—made me aware early of the power and pleasure of words.  Both of them spoke well, and were very witty.  Humor, both verbal and physical, had a strong presence in the house where I grew up.  My mother, a librarian, kept me well-supplied with books.

My earliest literary influences weren’t poets. Twain, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky were among the first non-children’s authors that knocked me out.  Other than children’s poems recited by my mother when I was very young, the first poets I loved were Poe, Eliot, and Dylan Thomas.  A friend in high school English turned me on to Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti.  When I loved their work, and said, “I wish I could write something like that,” he said, “Don’t whine about it.  Try.”  So I did.

Ron Koertge, Gerry Locklin, Edward Field, James Tate, and Russell Edson had a big impact on me when I was first beginning to publish.  I’m sure their influence is still evident today.

Ed Hirsch, whom I worked with at a writer’s conference some time later, also had a major influence on me, as did Robert Pinsky, with whom I worked at another writer’s conference.

My wife and son have also influenced my writing in many ways, all for the better.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

Experience has installed a kind of Geiger counter in my brain that begins to tick when I’m in the presence of something interesting that might yield a poem.  I jot down what that something is, then, when I get a chance, start writing about it in a free-associational way to see what shows up on the page.  Writing poetry is an act of discovery for me.  If I’m lucky, something amazing turns up.  If I’m not lucky, no problem; I try again.  I work hard at my craft, but to generate anything worth working on, I have to trust my unconscious mind.

How has living, writing and teaching in Southern California shaped your work?

I think being in the entertainment capital of the country has reinforced my instinct—also reinforced by years as a professional musician—to shun the pedestrian, and make my poems as entertaining as I can.  I also think being in LA has heightened an already-present tendency toward strangeness, absurdism, hyperbole, and surrealism in my work.  That’s part of the natural environment here.

Speaking of natural environment—I suspect that living in LA has worked against my impulse to be a nature poet.   If I’d lived someplace more pastoral, I suspect that impulse would have been easier to follow.

Has your background as a trained psychotherapist influenced your poetry?

I started studying psychology in order to better understand the human psyche, and thus become a better writer.  I hope that happened.  I think it did.

I know that working as a therapist had a profound effect on me personally. Being allowed to look deeply into other people’s . . . what to call it—souls? . . . is humbling, and humanizing, and broadening in the extreme.

Revising, for me, is very similar to psychotherapy, in that I listen to a lot of rambling (my own), then try to pick out and foreground what is important in all that has been said.

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

I’ve heard Edward Hirsch say something to the effect that “Everyday life is the enemy of poetry.”  The contemporary world seems to conspire to keep us from the kind of patient observation, uninhibited emotionalism, and intense inferiority that is necessary to write good poetry.  Every hour that I manage to write is an hour wrested from the powers of social responsibility and psychic darkness.

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

I have a pin-prick-sized hole in the flesh of my right ear.  I inherited this from my dad.

On the other hand, if you read my work carefully, you’ll find out more about me than even I know.  Not that everything I write about happened to me . . .

About the Author:

CHW by stream

Charles Harper Webb is the author of ten books of poetry, including Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems, and What Things Are Made Of.  Editor of Stand Up Poetry: An Expanded Anthology, Webb has received the Morse Prize, Pollak Prize, Saltman Prize, and Kate Tufts Discovery Award, as well as grants from the Whiting and Guggenheim Foundations. He teaches at California State University, Long Beach, where he has served as both Director of Creative Writing and MFA Director.

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It’s a Small Press World

Guest Post by R. Scott McCoy

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It is a very small world. I’d like to start with a bit of backstory. In short fiction, backstory is to be avoided, but this is real life and a certain context is required.

I met Martin Ott in basic training at Ft Leonardwood, Missouri. We didn’t become instant friends on day one; rather we grew into it because of our common path and mutual interests. We were both going to Fort Huachuca for Interrogator school and afterwards on to the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey.

There were actually three of us, the third being Eric Costlow, or Cos. We went through challenging times together at a point in our lives when we were trying to figure out who we were and who we wanted to be. Marty is a part of who I was and after more than 25 years, I reconnected with him on Facebook because he had done an interview about his latest book. I should have known he’d become a writer.

Marty started writing much sooner than I did. I’d decided in 2005 that I was going to finally lay it all on the line and see if I had what it took. I didn’t have lofty goals like being the next Stephen King or even being good enough to scrape out a living with my writing. No, my goal was more basic. I wanted to know if I could write a story that someone would want to read. I wanted to find out if I could learn the craft well enough that I could touch another person with my words and make them glad they had spent the time. This was my quest. I’d tried and quit several times starting when I was eighteen and in the Army. The reason I failed so often is irrelevant to this post, but finally in 2005, something clicked and I started down the path of becoming a writer.

In 2007, my father became ill and was hospitalized. He suffered several complications and eleven months later, he died. During those eleven months, I spent a lot of time with him in hospitals, much of it while he was asleep or unconscious.  It gave me time to reflect.

If you’re reading this, chances are that you are somewhere on the path. You have or will find out that working on your craft is only part of it. You also need to know how to market your writing so it can escape the confines of your computer and be read. I was frustrated with a lot of what I discovered when I tried to get published. Sitting in a waiting room, doing what the room was designed to do, I wrote down all of the things that frustrated me about getting published. The top two items on my list were long turn around times and form rejections. Most magazines or anthologies I was interested in didn’t allow simultaneous submissions. The average response time in 2005 was ninety days, with some lasting over a year. The response, if it was a rejection, was usually a short paragraph with no indication if your story had missed the mark by an inch or a mile. I was taught that if I was going to complain about a situation, I should also take the time to come up with a solution. But what could I do, I was a writer not a publisher.

Light bulb.

I’d only written short stories up to that point and all of them were horror. I didn’t make a conscious decision to write horror stories; it’s just what came out. I enjoy the genre because I feel it allows the exploration of the human condition  in the most concise manner. I don’t need to build a world or explain technology.

When I decided to start a short fiction magazine, it made sense to make it horror because I knew it better than other genres. I read voraciously and with the exception of romance, I don’t discriminate. I know SciFi, Fantasy, and Thriller, having cut my teeth on the classics in my youth. But what I wrote was horror, so

I had a better feel for what would make a good short horror story. While I was in one of those waiting rooms, a doctor came in to tell me about my father’s latest complication. One of my many theories is that doctors use Latin when speaking to patients or family members as a coping mechanism. It gives them some distance as well as a position of superiority. He informed me that my father’s colon was now “Necrotic Tissue,” and needed be removed.

At that point in my life, I needed a distraction from the pain. I took some solace from my writing, but I needed something more. I needed a quest. It all came together as these things do, and I decided to start a horror magazine called Necrotic Tissue. I got a friend to create my website and format the magazine. He also did all the layout and art. I got some other friends to help me with reading submissions. The magazine had a few simple goals:

– Fast turnaround averaging fourteen days

–  Personal rejections, even if it was only one sentence, give a reason for the rejection and, if possible, advice on how to improve

– Pay on time

– Always pick the best story

The last goal may seem obvious, but many magazines wouldn’t give a new writer a chance, regardless of how good the story was. They sought known names because known names sell magazines. Eventually, I solicited known writers and paid pro rates to help sales, but I never took a slot away from another writer, I just made the magazine longer by one story.

The one mistake I made was assuming I could break even. After three years, it became clear that I would run with a loss for at least two more years, possibly longer. The IRS allows you to declare a loss in only three of five years for a small business venture before they consider it a hobby. I pushed it to four years, risking an audit because I wanted NT to survive.

In the end, I couldn’t turn the corner and had to close shop, but not before I put out fourteen issues, one novel, one play collection and two anthologies as well as being the first publishing credit for dozens of writers. I would like to try again using a non-profit model. With margins so thin, a publisher has to worry about every single penny.

It’s easy to put editors and publishers (often the same thing in small press) in the role of the antagonist. They are often faceless villains that just don’t understand our art. The reality is that most of them are also writers and the time they take to run a small press is time that takes away from their writing. Some of them use it as a venue for their own writing and some use it as a way to trade publishing credits, a practice I find despicable. Still others jump in and out of ventures, most trying to network with well-known writers. But the majority of small press publishers just want to put out a good product.

Small press is not one thing. It varies as much as the varied people that own them and they change over time. You need to put in the time and effort on market research. It will save you a lot of heartache and pain. Beware of scammers and don’t be afraid to ask other writers what their experience with a given publisher has been. You can’t submit what you never write down and you can get a publishing credit if you never submit. Finally, thicken your skin, because if your goal is to be showered with complements and accolades, you need another line of work.

One last thing and I will step off my soapbox. Support the publishers that support you. Most writers are broke most of the time, but that doesn’t stop you from reposting news from your publishers on Facebook. You need reviews for your work, but you can also help out other writers by reading their work and posting review on Amazon. I’m not talking about anything unseemly. The fact is that even a bad review on Amazon helps. It’s a numbers game. Take the time to read some of your peers and post reviews. They may or may not reciprocate, but that’s not really the point. Regardless of whether you are selfless or selfish, helping your publisher can only help you in the long run.

Despite the fact that there are thousands of writers out there at various stages of their careers, it is a relatively small community. When I first met Marty and Cos, I was trying to escape who I had been. I saw the Army as a chance to be a better person and went about remaking myself in that image. It was a lofty goal and I would like to think that I’ve made progress towards it. I chose my friends carefully, wanting to surround myself with good people that would help me in my transformation. I’m glad to finally reconnect with Marty and share a mutual passion for writing. It is a very small and wonderful world.

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