August 29, 2014

In Praise of Organic Poetry Communities

Great crowd for Little Salon on Wednesday. I bought one of Fawna Xiao's beautiful screen prints and made the one pictured, using a stencil she designed. Samuel Prather and his bassist played a lovely version of "My Funny Valentine." Melissa Girard spoke about Georgia Douglas Johnson, a poet and hostess of salons for the Harlem Renaissance, who lived only a block away at at 1461 S Street NW. I found out that Lucas Southworth is also in the baby-tooth club, and I picked up his fiction collection Everyone Here Has a Gun. I debuted a selection from Count the Waves, a book that gets more real by the day. Thanks to Amy Morse for the snapshot below. 



August is a funny, often melancholy time for writers, especially in the age of social media. The need to go back to school looms for the many of us who teach. If you got to experience an immersive colony or conference--a low-res MFA residency, Sewanee, Bread Loaf, VCCA, Tin House Writers Workshop--you're mourning the distance from that community. If you didn't get to go, you might be quietly envying those who did, wondering what you missed. 

There's power to the bonds forged in the fire of such temporary tribes. All it takes is a few words to evoke the memory of a Famous Writer's presence, good or bad; the late nights, the fifth drink, the legendary readings. But let's not under-appreciate the bonds that form more slowly, as well: your organic poetry community. It's not the hotshot community that you choose, or that chooses you, for two adrenaline-laden weeks. It's the community that sneaks up on you through accretion of experience. One of my companions for the evening was writer and activist Natalie E. Illum, a good friend since we were both graduate students at American University in 2002. I can't count how many readings we have attended together. Watching a new series like Little Salon come to life before our eyes, I feel a bit…not-new. Not in a bad way; in a thoughtful way. 

Anyone with an organic poetry community will recognize the archetypal moments below. Some are bittersweet at best. Many of us in the DC writing community shared a wave of sadness with the recent news of Wendi Kaufman's passing; even though I never got to know her like some did, I certainly knew "The Happy Booker." She was part of the fabric of my experience here. Each signpost is reminder of your literary landscape, your shared history, your common vocabulary. There is value in that. People would miss you if you up and left tomorrow. Don't forget it. 


SIGNPOSTS OF AN ORGANIC POETRY COMMUNITY


-You still stubbornly use and re-use bags from a bookstore that closed years ago. 

-You know the usual suspects: The gentle, slightly formal poet who speaks four languages. The grizzled, cynical editor who has published everybody under the sun. The novelist with the funky eyeglasses. The children's book writer who actually sells more books than any of us. The ones who always show up a half-hour early, and sit in a corner scribbling. The ones who always hover by the free wine. 

-You remember that time a Famous Writer visited town, for some weird reason nobody showed up, and you felt so bad that you bought two copies. In hardback. 

-Someone else's cool new venue is your favorite old dive bar. 

-You said Yes to visiting the high school class at 9 AM, and lived to tell the tale. 

-You said Yes to a reading with a line-up of over twenty people, and lived to tell the tale. 

-You said Yes to the reading at the senior citizens' home where they asked for "some Maya Angelou," and lived to tell the tale. 

-You've taken part in a debate over the hiring/election/portrayal of a local arts figure. 


-You've found yourself trying to sell books at the annual fair, one table over from the nice lady selling handcrafted yarn and soap. 

-You remember when those two people who now barely acknowledge each other were a literary super-couple. 

-You have taken part in a celebration for someone who passed away before his or her book made it to print.  

-You've met an up-and-coming writer with a familiar last name and, with a start, realized: This is [X]'s daughter! This is [Y]'s son!

-You have a go-to order at the local teahouse, the perfect amount to justify 90 minutes of camping out with a draft of a manuscript. 

-You remember when the semi-successful hometown musician used to show up at poetry open mics with a guitar and test out lyrics.

-When you meet a recent transplant who starts ragging on the arts scene, you give a tight smile and say "it's just a little fragmented." Because while it may have its problems and shortcomings, it's your scene, dammit. You dance with them that brung ya.

Like all writers, I have moments of feeling left out. Far away. But the organic poetry community in DC is pretty amazing. Richard Peabody took this photo in 2005, for the Gargoyle #50 reading at Lubber Run. I bought that skirt in high school. I got lost driving, the reading was long, we all got bitten by mosquitoes. Moira had not yet moved to Italy. Hilary was still with us. I'm lucky to have been here then, and to be here now. 


August 17, 2014

360 Degrees


Hard to believe that summer is in its waning days (though Indian Summer's burst of sop-sweat humidity still lies ahead). After a road trip to Ocean Springs for the Mississippi Writers Guild and a day trip to Charlottesville for the Virginia Quarterly Review Writers' Conference, I'm staying in place this fall. Doing a little more teaching than usual--continuing on with my University of the Tampa students as well as a class at American University, "Writers in Print and Person." We met with new friends for spectacular spicy food at Doi Moi, and I met with an old friend to celebrate her birthday at 2Amys. I'm overdue for a visit to the Hirshhorn. I'm hoping my dad and I are on hand to root the Nats toward a championship season. 

Last night, I gathered with a group of poets at the edge of the reflecting pool for a reading. Pictured above is Barrelhouse editor Dan Brady, our closing reader for the night. As Mark said, the motivation was simple--it's been a tough week. As I've written about elsewhere, there are few things more restorative for one's faith in poetry, or in poets, than these late readings without pomp or premise. I could use a few more. 

More readings on the horizon….





(Hosted by Brandon Wetherbee at the Gibson Guitar Center's DC showroom; I'll be performing alongside David Carter, Franqi BC French, Meghan McCarthy Vadala, D'Arcy Neal, Ben O'Brien, and John F. O'Donnell)

Twice in the last few days, someone has asked me "how do you do it?" That suggests a level of competence that I don't deserve--the short answer is that I'm not sure I am doing it, if "it" signifies a flourishing career. Like anyone else, I stutter and fumble in my strategies. I agree to do too many things for free. I get scared the new work isn't as good as the old work. I procrastinate. I spend too much on scotch. 

I have certain moments when I'm doing something I know I can do well, for an audience I care about, and I'm immensely grateful. The conference in Mississippi felt that way, three talks in one day, with good conversations in between. Sitting on a panel to discuss memoir with VQR editor W. Ralph Eubanks and Scott Stossel (editor of The Atlantic) felt that way. I believe that when the universe knows you're trying to support yourself through writing, the universe offers more opportunities for you to do so. But I don't spend a lot of time thinking "I'm doing it!" What goes well, I chalk up to luck. And I'm always pretty hard on myself in terms of what could have gone better.  

Just wanted to be honest about that. 


When you're a full-time writer, you have to balance your attention to the muses and the more practical matters. This week, I was working on my Author's Questionnaire for W. W. Norton, in preparation for next summer's publication of Count the Waves, my third poetry collection. These are onerous documents; what starts out as a 2-3 page list of questions can swell to a dozen pages, single-spaced. But they are incredibly helpful as a way of organizing one's thoughts in preparing for publication. I know so many folks who--after jumping the hoops to editorial acceptance--are ambushed by the additional hoops it takes to sell the book. The Author's Questionnaire is meant to help itemize your contacts, expand your market awareness, and rehearse answers to likely questions. 

If you've got a book coming out, you should fill one out. It's okay if some questions draw a blank. It's okay if you're self-publishing, or working with an understaffed indie, and there's no one else to carry this forward on your behalf. The upside about the lag between acceptance and pub is that you have time to become your own best publicist.

Creative writing students are often so savvy in terms of their craft, but completely blindsided in terms of navigating the industry. (This remains a largely verboten topic in MFA programs, much to my frustration.) If you're just taking your first steps toward sending out, with the goal of publishing books down the road, an AQ offers a valuable survey of the elements that add up to defining one's "platform."

If this feels a little crass and reductionist, apologies. I don't argue that this gets at the heart of what we write or why we write it. But no author need apologize for wanting to reach readers--and if the questions below give you a fresh idea of how to do so, so be it. 

Without further ado, a glimpse from behind the scenes….


AUTHOR QUESTIONNAIRE

YOUR NAME:

TITLE & SUBTITLE OF YOUR BOOK:

YOUR EDITOR:

About Your Book

1. Describe your book in no more than 250 words. 

2. Describe your book in 15-20 words or fewer.

3. What were the circumstances that led to the writing of this book?

4. What books do you view as comparable to yours?

5. Are there any recent or forthcoming books that might be perceived as competitors? Please list them, and note briefly how your book is different.

6. Do you have reasons for recommending a particular publication date (e.g., the anniversary of an event, a time of year that book buyers and/or media would be especially interested in the topic of your book, etc.)?

Personal Information

1. Your primary contact information—phone, email, and mailing address:

2. Your home address:

3. Date and place of birth:

4. Citizenship:

5. Are you married? To whom? Do you have children?

6. What is your chief occupation? Please give your title and a brief description of your job. Mention any other aspects of your career which might be relevant to promoting your book.

7. Do you have any other areas of interest or hobbies that pertain to the subject of your book?

8. List all schools, colleges, universities, etc., attended. Include dates of graduation, degrees, honors, grants, or awards received.

9. List cities and states where you have lived, and give dates of residence.

10. List the names and locations of bookstores where you are known; the bookstores where you buy books.

11. If you have a Web site, please give URL and tell us a little bit about the site. Is there anything else we should know about your online presence that might be helpful to your book?

12. List your other books, mentioning publishers, dates of publication, and sales figures. Were any of these books selected by book clubs? Made into movies? Excerpted in magazines? Awarded prizes?

Special Sales Contacts

Please supply us with names and addresses and, wherever possible, a contact at any or all of the following:

1. Special interest groups, associations, societies, or organizations that might make bulk purchases of your book.

2. Specific industries, firms, or corporations that might find your book useful as a corporate gift, sales aid, or educational tool.

3. Mail-order catalogs and/or online commerce sites that specialize in the subject.

Marketing and Publicity Contacts

1. Please list names and addresses of people whose comments on your book would be influential in promoting sales. Include other authors, commentators, booksellers, and any prominent individuals you think would be interested.

2. Do you intend to give lectures? If you have a lecture agent, please supply contact information.

3. List any specialized magazines, journals, Web sites, or newsletters that focus on the subject of your book or have expressed interest in your work. Include any contact information you have.

4. Are there newspaper or magazine journalists, critics, columnists, or bloggers who write about subjects similar to that of your book or who are familiar with your work? Please list names, publications, and addresses if you have them.

5. List any television shows, radio programs, or podcasts that have expressed interest in having you as a guest, or that focus on the subject area addressed in your book. If you have been interviewed before, give show names and years of appearance. Are recordings of your appearance available?

7. Please list any friends or contacts you have in the print, broadcast, or online media, along with detailed contact information and an explanation of your relationship.

8. What are your hometown newspapers and alumni publications? What are your hometown TV and radio interview shows? Are there any other local publications that will be interested in you and your work?

9. Do you have access to any mailing lists or email lists that could be used to promote your book?

#

I suspect many writers see the heavy emphasis on contacts in the media and freeze up. But you know more people than you realize. Consider all 360 degrees of your life: your identities as a teacher, a community member, a volunteer, a parent, an alumna. Don't fixate on promoting your writing exclusively to other writers. If anything, those other audiences will be more excited at the novelty of you writing a book. 

While you're at it, assemble the rest of your publicist's toolkit. Specifically:

-Business cards with phone number, email, website. Consider including the name(s) of your book(s), as well as the cover art (or a key element of it). That's more effective than postcards, which tend to get kindly accepted but ultimately thrown away. 

-An author photograph in hi-res (300 dpi), with files saved in both color and grayscale versions, all permissions secured for reproduction online and in print. 

-Three narrative versions of your author bio: 50 words, 100 words, and 250 words. 

#

I was commiserating with a friend a few weeks back, who also has a book coming out in the coming year. That seems weird to write--but yes, even folks with books coming out have cause to commiserate. There's a difficult lull that comes in the period after you've stopped having control of the text, but before the book has a "face" in the form of a cover and firm pub date. All you can do is show your commitment, question by question, email by email. Assemble your toolkit. Put one foot in front of the other. 

In a strange way, these next couple of hometown readings are particularly precious. Because I won't have a book in hand to sell--not yet, not for a while--and there will be no underlying machinery. These readings will just be about the art of what is possible when a writer faces a crowd, and opens her mouth to speak. 

July 14, 2014

A Letter to My 20-Something Self~



This was an out-and-about weekend in literary Washington--one writer's farewell party on Friday night, a coffee meet-up with dozens of women on the roof of the Kennedy Center, editing Count the Waves over a saison at Little Red Fox, my friend Susan Coll's book party (read The Stager!), which was filled with familiar faces from Politics & Prose, and the Three Tents series at the Big Hunt on Sunday evening. When I moved to 18th & S Street NW in 2002 (my little fourth-floor studio with a view of the gas station and questionable fire code compliance) I had no idea what DC would come to mean to me. There's a radius around Adams Morgan that holds a layer upon layer of sense memory: past addresses, jobs, loves, fears, and aspirations of a decade past. 

Dear Self of My Twenties,

So you're the girl seated at the far end of the Kramerbooks bar, scribbling away on workshop drafts. You're the one trying to learn to parallel park. You're the one storming away from the bar at 2 AM after one kiss, a terrible blend of vodka and tater tots churning in your stomach. You're wearing a kitty-cat mask and a little black dress on Halloween night. You're driving an hour, alone, to see the Counting Crows in concert. You're the one who can pull an all-nighter on a single cup of coffee. 

You're going to do just fine. But here's what I wish you'd known along the way.

Say Yes to every creative opportunity, whether it be a reading or lit mag or tutoring or community organizing; whether it be poetry or fiction or essay-writing. You think you know what you want to write, and the way and where of how you'll publish it, but you don't. The less you pigeonhole yourself, the more likely you'll have the variable skill set it takes to make a living as a writer. 

Your underpaying office job knows that you work on your writing while at your desk. They don't mind. Just don't hold up someone else's copy run because you're printing out your manuscript. Stealing pens is okay; stealing postage is sketchy.

Although you bitch and moan about the Metro, you will never have so much captive reading time ever again. 

Resist the futon, as cost- and space-effective as it it. Falling asleep with a television in your immediate line of vision is bad, and waking up to it is worse. You will sacrifice any hope of instilling habitual punctuality to the 8 AM to 9 AM block of Charmed.

There's never a good reason to eat canned spinach for dinner. 

Invariably, you will encounter the Open Mic of Death, in which everyone waiting to read has no interest in the work of others. Someone will have a hacking, sneezing hay fever. Someone will stand up and dodge the "one page" limit by reading single-spaced prose. You will read, then think, "Surely it's okay to get up and leave now." Don't do it. This is where you begin cultivating good form as a writer, and that includes having a Happy Place you can retreat to in your mind, unobtrusively and without egress, during such readings. Also, the host always notices the people who leave early. 

When a work supervisor puts his hand on your shoulder and refers to you as his "nightcap," though your first thought should be "How do I report this," what your actual thought will be is, "How do I prevent the rumor that we slept together?" You will feel terribly guilty, because, How dare you tempt him by making good conversation? This is the downside of being a bright, chatty 20-something woman with a superhuman sense of agency. He knows better. He is a dean of students at a liberal arts college. 

Close-toed shoes really aren't so bad. You should try them. Cold toes are distracting.

When your mother tries to explain hurtful things your partner does by framing it as "Men do X; Women do Y," do not dismiss her with a withering, "I don't believe in all that gender-stereotyping." Just because you dislike her rhetorical frame doesn't make her life's accumulated experiences irrelevant or invalid. Also, she's probably trying to find a discreet way to tell you what it's like to be married to your dad. Also, by the time you're in your 30s you'll find yourself saying "Know what? Men do X; Women do Y."

There are people you admire in the field of writing. You will eventually meet most of them them. Some of them will make you feel small and uncool. You will try again, like a golden retriever begging the attention of a minor god. They will make you feel small and uncool, again and again. This has nothing to do with you.  

There is a delightful subset of this group that will make you feel small and uncool only the first time you meet them. Then you'll realize that actually, they are just painfully shy. These people are usually worth cultivating to the point of friendship, or at least companionable silence in crowded rooms. 

Out-drinking someone is the worst waste of time. Even when you win, you lose. 

Other writers will be, in fact, as as ebullient and kind as you always hoped. There's a generosity of spirit that comes with having talent, and having been recognized for it. 

Just because you regard someone as your mentor does not mean he or she will be able to write you recommendation letters, ad infinitum, on less than ten days' notice. 

Hand-writing the note on good stationery is always the right thing to do. 

I look back at some of the worst sunburns, when the skin across breasts and shoulders itched and bubbled before peeling away, and I think: What the hell? Sun as a byproduct of living: Yes. Sun as a goal, timed in half-hour intervals on a ratty towel: No.

Develop at least a moderate skill set at the 3Ps of pool, poker, and ping pong. When writers get together for any length of time at a conference or residency, there is invariably a group that separates itself in order to play one of these things. It's good to have the option of joining them. 

Andy Warhol had a simple method of record keeping: at the end of each month, he tipped the mess of papers covering his desk into a box. That's kind of space-consuming, but time-capsule yourself in a manilla envelope every few months with a stack of emails, invitations, and handwritten drafts. Doesn't need to be precious--just what was on your mind at the time, labeled. As an artist, you'll be so glad to have it later.

Some people surf from crisis to crisis. Up to you, how much you let their crises become your crises. Don't convince yourself someone is passionate, when what they really are is just dramatic. That said: when in doubt, go for the kiss. You're in your 20s, after all. 

Work a little harder to keep your plants alive.

Please keep all the photographs in which you're laughing. ALL of them. No matter how unflattering or out of focus. Countless poised smiles in front of bridges or mountains, though picturesque, don't summon much of a memory. But the photos where you're delighted & in motion & and don't give a damn about the camera? That's the real story. 

Love,
Sandra