Category Archives: Writing Tips

Poetry Spotlight – Matthew Gavin Frank

Author Photo linocut

OK, what did I do when I first read the brilliant poem – Elements of the Pasty and Its Relationship to the Lake – about two of my favorite things in the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of the Black Warrior Review? I did what any poetry fanboy would: jumped to the bio section to find out about this writer and discovered that Matthew Gavin Frank is a Midwest writer teaching up in Northern Michigan University not far from where I grew up. When I contacted him, he was kind enough to let me reprint it in its entirety below.

I have read the poem many times and I am still in awe. I love the way it bounces between food, facts about the Great Lakes, and tidbits of life from the mitten states that make me homesick. It weaves several narrative threads together loosely in a way that each section adds and informs to the other sections around it. It manages to have plenty of facts, but still weaves a spell, a story, that is more mythic than the sum of the parts. Just read it – you’ll be glad you did.

Martin Ott

Elements of the Pasty and Its Relation to The Lake

It’s not like this with Cream of Mushroom soup and La Choy Fried Onions.  In the pasty, in the singular shell, dinner shares space with dessert.  We start with dinner and eat downward.  It’s not like this with Hot Dish, with casserole, with pizza with a Saltine crust.  In the pasty is an eating toward—a sinking into the bottom of food.  In this way, eating mimics drowning.  Ambiance mimics drowning.  In the pasty, is difficulty breathing, is eyes adjusting to the mineshaft dark and to the daylight, is anticipation, is harbinger, is a whole new world beyond the chuck and the rutabaga, is apples-and-cinnamon, is an eating toward, and an eating toward sweetness.

*

It’s not like this with backyard swimming pools, the facedown hair fanning the surface, the beach ball rolling pink over green.  In Lake Superior, drowning is an expected tragedy.  It’s dark at the bottom of a lake.

*

According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project (GLSRP), “Overall since 2010, 210 people have drowned in the Great Lakes (74 in 2010; 87 in 2011; and 49 to date in 2012).

‘Just unbelievable how these drowning numbers just keep rising week after week,” said Dave Benjamin [GLSRP Executive Director of Public Relations].  “At this rate we could see well over 100 by the end of the year.’”

*

After days in mineshaft darkness, my uncle, or somebody’s uncle, or so many of our uncles swear by backstroking in Lake Superior.  It has to do with currents, tides, white-caps.  It has to do with everything wet and huge and cool enough to float on.  If a body of water this large isn’t killing us, Uncle says, it’s supporting our weight.

*

Like the dessert section of the pasty, the number 100 is something to reach for, to attain.  100 is a milestone.  A goal, sweet and morbid.  A perfect, even number.  Nothing is more even, more steady, than the hands of the drowned.  Not even 100.

*

Like the mine, Lake Superior supports its own agriculture.  Off the shore of my hometown, in 2010, the body of Rod Nilsestuen, Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture was found floating in Lake Superior.

*

My uncle has a bumper sticker that says FUCK CORNWALL, THIS IS MICHIGAN.  If my uncle doesn’t have this bumper sticker, then he has black lung, and if he doesn’t have black lung, then he’s depressed due to a lack of light, and if he’s not depressed due to a lack of light, he can call this only soul-sickness, can only lament the ways in which we’re not jacketed in pastry dough brushed with egg yolk, a crust that will protect us from birds who scream from the dark, from the lack of air that, in the beginning, seemed to exhilarate.

*

ANIMALS DROWN AT LAKE SUPERIOR ZOO, reads the headline, and Uncle laughs.  It’s his one day off.  He’s just come back from his swim, for lunch.

*

This is goal-oriented eating.  The meat as a means to an end.  Macerated plums on Thursday.  The brake to a shaking hand.  In the bath of the headlamp is the pasty and the hand that holds it.  The batteries here are strong.  Once we bite through the crust, release the steam, the heat, the wet, something of the ghost and something of the future, things begin to go cold, dry, the batteries here are the only things that are strong.  Tomorrow, I want to lie in bed all day.  I wish I lived closer to the Lake.  I want to lie in bed all day and listen to whitefish court other whitefish.  I want to hear people swimming safely.  It’s good to have a goal.

*

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, from 1843 through the 1920’s, pure native copper just about leaked from the earth, exploded from it, and towns were established and boomed, and folks ate food and drank liquor and men spread their legs and women spread their legs and with food and liquor and spread legs made descendants who can visit these towns in the name of communion and reunion and union and none, and we call these gatherings heartfelt and we call these gatherings historical, and we use words like ancestry and inheritance and we stand on the rock piles and bluffs and tailings of Central Mine and Gay and Mandan and Cliff and Delaware and Phoenix and we eat pasties not because we need to, but because they are some sort of souvenir, some kind of shaft that leads, definitively down, toward something like heritage or lake-bed, something makeshift, but geologic and collapsible, and we pretend that these towns are not popularly preceded by the word ghost.

 

*

 

The old Phoenix church, in 1858, was called St. Mary’s.  Later, it was disassembled and rebuilt and renamed The Church of the Assumption.

*

We assume there are meanings in names.

*

Superior derives from the Latin superiorum or superus, meaning: situated above, or upper.  Lake Superior has the greatest depth of the Great Lakes, which means something to a miner.  It’s something to one day descend into.  It’s a milestone.  Lake Superior has the highest elevation of the Great Lakes, though Uncle backfloats upon it.  To the drowned, Lake Superior lives up to its name.

*

Here, to float upon is better than to float within.  The upper implies the angelic, though implication is often misleading.

*

 

The Ontonagon Boulder, of the Upper Peninsula’s village of Old Victoria, is a 3,708-pound massif of native copper.  It can now be found in the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, where, should a tourist decide not to read the exhibit’s plastic 3×5 placard, he or she will wonder about the specialness of this big, ugly rock.

*

Ontonagon, in the Chippewa language, translates as “Lost Bowl.”  Regarding the pasty, I’m not sure what this should mean.  Regarding the Lake, this is convoluted metaphor at best.

*

According to a travel brochure titled, Visit the Upper Peninsula of Michigan’s world famous “Copper Country,” Old Victoria is “a very picturesque ghost town.”

*

The atomic weight of copper is 63.55 g/mol.  The atomic weight of iron is 55.85.  The atomic weight of sulfur is 32.07.  The atomic weight of gold is 196.97.  The average pasty—a baked pastry shell, half of which includes a savory dinner of stewed meat and root vegetable, half of which includes dessert—weighs two pounds.  The average human lung weighs about 14 ounces, so much heavier than this underground air, so much lighter than the pasty.

*

Lake Superior is comparatively obese, but not lazy.

*

While many immigrant miners in the Upper Peninsula were from Cornwall, many more were Finns, Austrian, Croatian, Italian, Canadian, and Swedish.  Each group impacted the pasty’s regional evolution, with seasoning, with ingredient.  Culinary arguments were fierce. Regardless, each version varied little (those who lived near Superior often used lakewater in the dough), and each version was easily portable, heavy and hearty, but clutch-able in one hand, and each version, in the cold of the deep, could be heated up on a shovel held over the candleflame of the miner’s headlamp.  The pasties are cooking.  The canaries are screaming.  Someone coughs.  That means they’ve not yet drowned.

*

The U.P. pasty, when compared to the Cornish variety, contained larger chucks of vegetable, a higher ratio of vegetable to meat, encased in a thinner crust.

*

The U.P. pasty as thin-skinned, even in all of this winter, the weather, and the water, closer to the blood.

*

The U.P. pasty as a little of this, a little of that, as Yiddish, as Fanagolo, as Esperanto, and the language through which we all can communicate up here/down here, as a means to understanding, as overused symbology, as cliché, as Kumbaya, as all things savory sharing space with all things sweet.  As reminder.  As anchor.  As something even a really big lake can’t wash away.

*

Often, a homestead requires leaving home, and then never leaving the homestead.  A life of two places.  For the subsequent generations, it requires never leaving home in the first place.  The pasty as perspective, encased in a hard crust.  As riding a snowmobile before you can walk.  As backfloating over 100 bodies.  As your great-grandson doing the same thing.  As I remember when I…

 

*

An 1861 proverb proclaimed that the more ingredients one crams into the pasty, the more protection one has from the devil, as the devil may fear that he may end up as just another ingredient for the filling.

*

In Superior National Forest, over two dozen attractions—islands, campgrounds, inland lakes, waterfalls, trails, jumps (the Devil’s Washtub jump, while technically outside of the Forest’s boundaries, claims lives each year as folks attempt to leap from a cliff, over a series of jagged rocks, into Lake Superior)—are named after the devil.

*

On the playgrounds of the turn of the century U.P., schoolboys would sing:

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

Ate a pasty five feet long,

Bit it once, bit it twice,

Oh, my Lord, it’s full of mice.

*

The pasty sits fixed in the hands of the miner, poised, poisoned.  The Lake unfixes itself, runs from the hands we eat with.

*

Breton may have said, They lowered a humpback into a copper mine to determine

the quality of its air.  The human lung can hold only six liters of breath, which is nothing compared to Lake Superior. Where are the headlamps when you need them?  My uncle took them into the mine.  He says, Whales are the canaries of the ocean.  He says, the pasty is no kind of savior.

 

*

Regarding the Quincy Mine Shelter, from the aforementioned brochure, “Hopefully this historic site will be restored.”  An eating toward.  Before we die, we take the elevator up.  As with surfacing from the Lake, it takes a few seconds to recognize the sun.

*

The pasty as doubling-back on itself, as a confused plot line, as a figure-eight, Möbius strip, infinity, a late bite downward, toward the sweet, the sweet being closest to the hands.

*

In the candle-shadow of the pasty and the birds and the shovel, coughing, we can’t tell where umbra becomes penumbra becomes antumbra.  We can’t tell hands from feet.  We can’t tell if that’s a shadow dying, or a man.  We can’t tell if the body is broken, or celestial.  We can’t tell that Lake Superior has been called the Earth’s youngest major feature—at only 10,000 years old, a side-effect of last retreat of the glaciers.  We can’t tell that the Lake is tantruming like a little sister, can’t tell that retreat is sometimes an answer and, to a superior lake, a Big Bang.  We can’t tell that our uncles, still young, look so old.

*

So, we eat.  And, in swimming after eating, test our ability to stave off the drowning.  On the beach, the smell of cooking dinner.  Of greasy waxpaper unwrapping from pastry shells.  In them, the sounds of lakes masquerading as oceans.  Sometimes, the sun is out.  In it, we must come up to the surface of the earth.  We must retreat to the shore.  It’s lighter there.

About the Author

Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of Pot Farm (The University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books), Barolo (The University of Nebraska Press), Warranty in Zulu (Barrow Street Press), The Morrow Plots (forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press/Dzanc Books), Sagittarius Agitprop (Black Lawrence Press/Dzanc Books), and the chapbooks Four Hours to Mpumalanga (Pudding House Publications), and Aardvark (West Town Press).  Recent work appears in The New Republic, The Huffington Post, Field, Epoch, AGNI, The Iowa Review, Seneca Review, DIAGRAM, Black Warrior Review, The Normal School, Crazyhorse, Indiana Review, North American Review, Pleiades, Crab Orchard Review, The Best Food Writing, The Best Travel Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Prairie Schooner, Hotel Amerika, Gastronomica, and others. He was born and raised in Illinois, and currently teaches Creative Writing in the MFA Program at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North.  This winter, he prepared his first batch of whitefish-thimbleberry ice cream.

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Poetry Spotlight: Orlando Ricardo Menes

menesfuria

I recently read Furia by Orlando Ricardo Menes (Milkweed Edition, 2005) and was interested in how the author was able to move from the autobiographical to the mythological, drawing upon experiences of being born in Lima, Peru, to Cuban parents and one family line from China, all while being influenced by Miami and his move to the United States.

Throughout Furia, Orlando Ricardo Menes uses the global staple of rice to help glues his exploration of the political and global to the concerns of everyday people and members of his own family. This central image, whether used throughout a collection or in an individual poem, can help ground and add earthiness to work that might otherwise be too preachy or myopic. Below is one one of the poems from Furia, Mythopoesis, first published in Sycamore Review.

Martin Ott

——————————————

Mythopoesis

Rice was not a gift of T’ien Ti,

God of Heaven, but that of a wild

dog. Long ago, on the plains

of Xietan, a flood killed all crops

so that humans had to hunt

in summer, scavenge in winter.

One day the clumsiest of hunters

saw a wild dog leave a marsh,

rice seeds stuck to its tail.

These grew and soon he harvested

them with his bare hands.

Thus the dog’s reward would

forever be a sweet and sticky ball

of glutinous brown rice.

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Easy Does It – Chad Harbach and Tracy K. Smith

Recently, I decided to read a novel (The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach) and a book of poetry (Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith)  at the same time. I read a chapter, then a group of poems, and continued this pattern over the course of several weeks. I discovered similarities – things I mostly liked and occasionally disliked – about both works. I also found a few lessons.

Lesson #1 – Don’t Shy Away from Well-Traveled Terrain

As writers, we are often told to explore new subject matter and forms. However, there are some subjects that are universal for a reason and strike chords. The topics of baseball in The Art of Fielding and outer space in Life on Mars speak to the geek in me. At different times in my life, I was obsessed about both topics, and I’m not the only one. Both writers find a way to treat these well-traveled topics in a fresh way, while still managing to keep an ease and simplicity in the work itself.

Lesson #2 –  Simplicity Does Not Mean Shallow

OK, I’ll admit it. As a fiction writer and poet, I got a bit jealous by how easy The Art of Fielding and Life on Mars were to read. The “effortless” prose and poetry felt very much like watching an athlete like Kobe Bryant gliding to the rim.

Neither writer adorned their works with words that called attention to themselves. Chad used the very familiar setting of college life to paint vibrant scenes without a lot of additional prose that took away from the sharp dialogue. Tracy often used simple metaphors (e.g. The Universe Is a House Party) to build her poems around.

While each author occasionally annoyed me – The POV charecterizations in The Art of Fielding were sometimes too shallow and there were a couple of clunkers (very bad poems) near the end of Life on Mars – I found myself excited and engaged with both works.

Lesson #3 – Ignore the Reviews and Make Up Your Own Mind

There were plenty of reviews available online and friends who wanted to share their opinions about each book. It’s always this way with books that have “buzz” and I needed to work hard to avoid finding out too much about them in advance. Of course, if you are reading this blog, it’s OK – no spoilers here!

– Martin Ott

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Rocking the Electronic Typewriter

This weekend I went to see the play The Book of Mormon, which I laughed at repeatedly and occasionally felt bad about for doing so. Going to the performance, I walked past a Starbucks (surprised, right?) and found a gentleman rocking an electronic typewriter. He was writing, of all things, a screenplay, and masterfully zipping to the proper indentions as he pounded out the dialogue of what could be a masterpiece, or madness, or both. It was great to get some writing inspiration in Hollywood of all places. I’ll take it.

Martin Ott

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3 Basics for Writing Every Day

Writing can be a lonely pursuit, and I sometimes find myself needing and giving pep talks.

I have a good friend, who has gone through a long spell of not writing, reading or submitting after completing a novel, and he continually gets his hopes up on his submissions. He is also an ex-boxer and martial artist, and I tried to pump him up by reminding him that writing is like any other discipline – you have to do the basics well and often in order to create, refine and publish your writing.

Here are my 3 Basics to Writing and what I strive to do EVERY SINGLE DAY:

1. Write

OK, I know…this one’s obvious. But I mean actually WRITE when you are tired, pissed about work, sick, or depressed. It doesn’t have to be much, preferrably at least an hour a day.

2. Read (And Think Critically)

Recently, in an interview on NPR, Junot Diaz said that everything he learned about writing he learned from reading. Reading is something we tend to cut back on when our professional, personal and writing lives are too busy. But we also need to remember that we love books and it helps our writing chops.

The second part of this is more complicated, and actually the reason I started this blog. I am now 15 years removed from my graduate writing program, and my writer’s group has turned into a social group over time, and I found I needed to find an outlet to engage with other people about what I love to do most. Some people post about writing on Facebook or Goodreads, and others go to workshops or join book clubs. My approach was to start a blog, and interact with a global community of writers (I have been surprised to find that Writeliving has now been read in more than 50 countries).

3. Submit (And Never Think About a Submission)

My writer friends run the gamut on this one, everywhere from 0 to 10,000 submissions a year. The past year I have simplified the process for myself and every day submit at least one thing. It helps that I write in multiple genres, finish new material often, and almost always have a selection of completed poems, stories, books to pitch.

My advice is to never have expectations for anything you’ve written to be published, and to always be open to what the universe brings from rejection notes, to acceptances.

There are other things you could put on this list, ranging from eating well, to sleeping, to calendaring your time. However, when I feel like I am getting off track, I focus even harder on these 3 basic things, and I repeat it almost like a matra. Write. Read. Submit. Repeat.

Martin Ott

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Sex as a Way to Get to Know Your Characters

When a friend forwarded a link  from Lit Reactor on Writing About Sex, I read it eagerly. It contained a few good tips on ways not to embarrass yourself while in the act of writing about the act.

However, the same night, I found myself putting the finishing touches on a sex scene in a novel, and I thought about it more deeply. Why did I have this scene in the book?

Unless the plot hinges on it – which it sometimes does in the case of infidelity or sexual obsession – I realized that a sex scene provides insight into your characters, and what they are like in a primal and, sometimes, vulnerable moment.

Sex is an intimate way for you and your readers to get to know your characters.

Martin Ott

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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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Company Storytellers – Managing Content Marketing

“Content Marketing is a strategy focused on the creation of a valuable experience. It is humans being helpful to each other, sharing valuable pieces of content that enrich the community and position the business as a leader in the field.” This opening thesis from the book Managing Content Marketing by Robert Rose and Joe Pulizzi is exciting to content marketers, like myself, who have spent way too much of their career pushing overly clever content out into the flotsam of advertising surrounding consumers.

Can businesses build content to rival media companies and act as publishers as well as marketers? The answer in Managing Content Marketing is “yes,” – but with the right strategy in place to help transform prospects into customers and customers into evangelists.

Apple is a prime example of an organization that is so focused on creating a valuable brand experience that it enables a cadre of evangelists to build fans sites, blogs and social media experiences for them. For those companies still building their brand equity, however, Managing Content Marketing has practical tips for taking control of their story (and becoming the hero in it).

Almost every creative writer I know has read The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler that outlines the 12 steps of the Hero’s journey based on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In Managing Content Marketing, the authors tailor the hero’s journey to help companies build their own mythic story and explain the value of building editorial calendars to map this story across different channels.

They also suggest that every organization should have the roles of Chief Content Officer and Managing Editor in order to build a 360 workflow where they can view (with web analytics) and listen (via polls and conversations) to their customers to make sure that their content provides value.

For those of us who have worked with content their whole careers, this transition to companies becoming storytellers and publishers as a mechanism to find and retain customers is no surprise. It’s human nature, after all. Companies that provide value – in their products and in their content – will be at a distinct advantage in being authentic and driving engagement with their brand.

Martin Ott

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Crazy Stuff You’ve Done – Grist for Writing

I got a call last week from a producer interested in potentially developing a screenplay I’d sent him – “Twain” – based on the idea of two brothers rafting down the Mississippi River for very different reasons. It turns out that the producer had grown up on the Mississippi River, and had a similar dream as the protagonist to raft down river with a family member starting at the headwaters.

This screenplay was co-written with Keith Kowalczyk (we met while at the MPW Program at USC). I shared with the producer how Keith had attempted to build a raft by hand – inspired by his love of Mark Twain – in an attempt to travel the length of the Mississippi River.

While Keith’s raft may have sunk almost immediately, the story had stuck with me a long time and I had suggested it as the basis for our next collaboration. Yes, Keith readily admits that it was crazy to try what he did, but he had been driven by a passion that carried a broader resonance.

There have been periods in my life where I did a whole bunch of idiotic stuff, and I find myself reimagining these experiences and placing them in the streams and tributaries of my own writing. These can include impetuous trips and friendships, unwise personal decisions and relationships, and the bizarre things you find yourself occasionally saying or doing. Of course, there is a whole lot of crazy that comes to us naturally in the forms of our families.

As far as the phone call, I’ve learned from experience not to have any expectations in the process of pitching and finalizing creative work. What I can take from my conversation, however, is a reaffirmed belief in the value of tapping into the crazy stuff you’ve done in the writing life.

Martin Ott

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Car Writing

Yes, we Angelenos spend too much time in our cars. I have used my commute to try to learn Mandarin and Portuguese, to devour books-on-tape and New Yorker fiction podcasts, to switch between NPR and shock jock conservative radio, to make up rock songs and sing badly and proudly.

My schedule very rarely involves long stretches of uninterrupted time, and I always make sure to have a notebook wedged into the side of my passenger door next to an umbrella I refuse to use the few times it rains here. This past weekend, I left the batteries of my car on while at the gym, a dual symbol of getting to “that” age when mind and body become sluggish together.

AAA told me that I had a half hour wait, and I decided to go ahead and work on a poem. The first lines came immediately:

The president asked the dictator

to be his wingman on the Ark,

the last of their race in a floating

fortress buoyed by melted icecaps.

The line length is influenced by the width of my small notebook, and I was lucky enough to get a draft written before my tow truck driver came with cables.

I have since edited and worked on the draft of a what I hope is a promising poem “Diplomacy” that explores two former world leaders looking to negotiate their way into young women’s beds after they have lost their status.

At other times, I have tried to use a tape recorder while navigating through traffic, but I get far too distracted to actually write while I drive. I also think that car makers should include a flip-out tray like airliners for laptops as I have also been known to type of few paragraphs of a story while waiting for my daughter to make her way to the front of her school.

Is it just me, or do other writers find it uncomfortable to type with your computer wedged between your stomach and the steering column?

Martin Ott

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