Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I Have a Crush on Henry Rollins' Brain

On Saturday, March 27th, Henry Rollins returned to Syracuse for the first time since he appeared at the newly opened RedHouse in 2004; this time he was at the Westcott Theater. I have been waiting since January for this experience and knew little of what I would encounter other than I am very curious about Henry Rollins. My friends would ask, "Is he with a band or is it just spoken word?" I did not know. I was just going to go find out with little expectation but much anticipation.

Let me back up. I was not heavily into the punk scene when it blew open the music world. I have tragic tales of missing performances by great bands because I was not ready to be open to them. But Henry starting entering my periphery every so often, mostly in dramatic roles on the small and large screen and occasional encounters with Black Flag references. I felt obliged to pay attention.

When I expanded my cable t.v. choices, I found Henry's talk show. I was enthralled. I also found a special broadcast of one of his spoken word performances in Israel a few years back one lazy afternoon. I was held captive by Henry on the little screen.

Then I read a collection of his earlier writings early last year. Henry had me, hook, line, and sinker. I was appalled by the anger and frustration of his younger years. I was empathetic for the tenacity of his human self to withstand much pain and keep going. I was confused often as the writings blurred the boundaries of memoir, stream of consciousness, and fiction. I felt his righteous indignation and was angered by the responses of those around him in his catalog of days, moments, feelings, and beliefs. I was riding the Henry Rollins roller coaster and loving every minute, even those when I really wanted to get off but knew I had no choice but to finish the ride.

So this leads us up to Saturday: the line of folks stretched up the block and around the corner of Dell Street; people of all ages and levels of piercings and tattoos, from none to outlandish. Hair was gray, hair was purple, spiked and GQ. It took awhile to get everyone in the door but once the last person was admitted, the single spot over the one microphone was met with Henry just strolling across the stage, taking his stance, and the words started to flow...for 3 hours without a drop of water, barely a breath. Henry just pontificated on any and all matters of discourse and wonder.

My biggest curiosity has been, "What is Henry like as a middle-aged man?" He is everything a man of this generation should be: righteously indignant, full of questions, a mirror to the rest of us, fully invested in the evolution of rock & roll as well as humanity itself. What did I discover? Henry is a scholar of American History, almost of geek-like proportions. He is funny...very funny, in fact. He is caring. He loves all people equally, even the fools and the bigots, although he does not approve of stupidity and has no problem letting us know how intolerant he may be at times. Henry is a citizen of the world and takes matters very much to heart.

Mostly, I loved how much Henry loves language. He honors the word so fully. The abbreviated world of marketing and texting annoys him dearly. He busts on texters (of which I proclaim I am one) with relish. Henry seemed to be this era's Spaulding Gray, telling the stories of his curious life and constant state of inquiry to whomever will listen. He also expects that his audience is intelligent and can follow his thoughts, understand what he is saying. He couches things in metaphor, he plays with syntax and literary devices. The world of language is his home and he is astoundingly prolific.

Henry is also tremendously generous with his fans, meeting them by his bus, night after night, even though it appears he is not very comfortable in that setting. He stood in the parking lot signing books, album covers, ticket stubs, for nearly an hour in the cold March night.

Henry, we want you back...soon! This poet will be on a mission to find a way to bring you back to Syracuse so we can all swim through the currents of your thought, so we can be reminded that Why is the most important word any of us can employ, but especially those of us who are writers. It is our source and our responsibility to question.

You can follow Henry's dispatches and discover other Rollins-related items and info at: www.henryrollins.com

Georgia Popoff is a member of the DWC community, frequent contributor to this blog, and believes in having a crush on someone just because they are really articulate can be healthy.

Friday, March 26, 2010

What's the Rush?! Random Thoughts on Simultaneous Submission

In step with the legitimization of internet publication, it seems that the rules for simultaneous submissions of work have grown more lax. The protocol is different for fiction and I am not as familiar with those rules as I am with poetry so I am primarily addressing poetry submissions to journals. But I must state upfront that I am opposed to the practice of simultaneous submissions. I am referring specifically to the submission of a packet of poems for an editor or team of editors to review for publication in a literary journal or other form of print publication. Note also, there is a different protocol for submitting manuscripts or collections of work to potential publishers than that of journal publication.

This practice has become much more prevalent but I find it awkward and rather unseemly. Again, I consider the question, what is my goal as a poet? I want to honor the word and the work first. I want to take enough time to sculpt the words into my intention and the most crafted form I can discover as I go with any individual piece. Actually, I want to revel in that. The mere process of honing a poem is the heart of the purpose and identity of poet to me...my own personal version of "The Zone," to use runners' terms. Then, once I am comfortable with the poem, I want audience. Either a reader or someone to listen is my goal, consider my perspective through verse.

Somehow, there is an urgency in getting published for many. The search for audience drives us to fold our poems into envelopes and send them out into the world to be judged by a stranger. We think this validation will help us. To a certain extent, it does.

But why do we find it necessary to fulfill this need so dearly that we feel we cannot give one editor ample time to sit with the work thoughtfully and then make a decision before notifying the poet of the outcome? Do we not have enough of a body of work to send five poems in one direction and five more in another? Do we really need to send out the same five poems to three or four journals at one time and then do the juggling it takes if the poems are accepted one place before the other magaziness have had a chance to move them fully through their editorial system?

As an editor of a poetry journal, I have witnessed that we have had to pull poems from packets of submissions sent by at least 10 poets this season, all before the deadline for the reading period had even passed. Are these the only poems these writers have to offer?

Perhaps striving for a greater body of mature and well-crafted poetry is more important than a string of publications. Why is it necessary to have immediate response to the submission? There is a huge pressure on editors to turn work around faster and faster to fulfill the demands and expectations of poets offering work for consideration. It seems to directly correlate with this environment of digital immediacy we now experience in the age of 3G technology.

Regarding the awkwardness, a poet must contact the editor (or editors) of the other journals where the work is in rotation for review, asking to have the poem withdrawn from consideration due to acceptance elsewhere. That editor must not only locate the poem among hundreds, maybe even thousands; the editor will likely then spend some time questioning why that person is selecting the other publishing opportunity first. It has become akin to a little bidding war for a piece of property.

What is the rush? Is the need so great to be read that a few weeks for one publication to make a decision either way is too long to wait?

I believe that simultaneous submission of poems is poor practice. I know there are those who do not agree. But please consider that issue of creating a body of well-tended work. Publishing will have its place but patience is a part of the growth of a writer. Is it that difficult to wait 8 - 12 weeks? I think not. We have just grown accustomed to immediacy and now it has become habit. We can survive the wait. I am confident that we all have the ability to slow down and practice deliberate action as well as patience.

Georgia Popoff is a frequent contributor to the DWC blog, an editor, and a teaching poet with a number of poems in journals and anthologies. She once submitted simultaneously by accident and was mortified to have to withdraw her work.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Straight out of My Own Bones: Some Thoughts on The Bell Jar

by: Jennifer Pashley

A few years ago, I outlived Sylvia Plath. And somehow, despite an aborted attempt at a PhD in American Studies, and a robust American poetry course as an undergrad, I'd read a lot of Plath's poems, but I'd never read The Bell Jar. Until this week. I read the whole thing on Monday. I haven't read an entire book in a day since high school, when I read all of The Great Gatsby in one sitting.

Why didn't I read it before? I think because no one takes it seriously. It's sort of that memoir-disguised-as-novel written specifically for college girls who cut their wrists for attention. Right?

In her introduction to the 1997 edition, Frances McCullough writes that if Sylvia Plath had lived, “it's hard to say whether … the novel would ever have been published in this country.” McCullough goes on to question what might have happened if Plath had written more novels, better novels. Would she have returned to her first novel, The Bell Jar, and thought differently? Would she have self-censored? Told less of the truth? Crafted the truth into something less raw? Something dulled at the edges, or as Wordsworth says, recollected in tranquility?

We'll never know. As McCullough says, “of course Plath did die a tragic death at the age of thirty, and the book's subsequent history has everything to do with that fact.” By which she means that Plath's suicide makes the book a cult favorite, but she also means that if Plath didn't die, the book might never have seen the light of day – because it's not very good. Right?

I was surprised. It's not the best book I've ever read. The plot – maybe because it's so true – feels predictable. The ending feels a little like a a Lifetime Movie. But, as McCullough points out, “her voice has such intensity, such a direct edge to it,” it forgives the structural flaws.

Take the opening lines:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. I'm stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that's all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn't help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive along all your nerves.

And she never lets you go. It's a close, tunnel-vision narrative, right out of the eye-sockets of Esther Greenwood. And that voice never waivers.

It's not The Kite Runner. It's not a globally significant narrative. In fact, it doesn't stray very far from the geography, class or political background that it knows. So why does it matter? Why did it ever matter? Because one college educated white girl from New England was depressed one year and wanted to get it off her chest? Wanted to drag you into the eye of the storm?

This is why: because in her marriage negotiations with Buddy Willard, Esther Greenwood stumbles upon this observation:

I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn't want to write poems anymore. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.

That's why. Because more than anything, this book struggles with the notion of either / or. Esther can be a poet or a mother. She can be an editor or a wife. You can pick one fruit off the fig tree, she says, and once you pick one, the rest of them wither and die.

What makes it so hard? Why are women prone to second guessing? Can't you do both? Be a mother and a writer? Tell the truth, and tell it hard, unfiltered, like a holy scream*, and do it well? I'm asking you. I've second-guessed my own answer.

You can debate Plath's answer – the suicide answer – the answer No, you can't. And if you try, you won't get out alive. But what you can't ignore here are the questions that Plath asks – about agency, about identity, and about telling the truth without apologizing. Or that what she asks has resonance, regardless of her own solution: "Everything she said was like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones."

*from the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry – the really old, 1972 version I have, in which Anne Sexton is listed as still living. In the intro to Sylvia Plath, the editors write “Sylvia Plath's poetry is a document of extremity. Her sensitivity is inordinate, but so is her ability to express it. The result is a holy scream, a splendid agony – beyond sex, beyond delicacy, beyond all but art.”

Jennifer Pashley has eaten a lot of figs in her day. She has new work this week at Dark Sky Magazine, as well as PANK.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Dude, Where's My Poem?! Some Musings on Publishing

The challenge of the writer is to develop a commitment to discovery. The poem or story can become the driving force of the process; the writer must then respond to the direction the work will choose for its full manifestation. The writer and the writing change places in navigation to the final work. This is the beauty and creative opportunity in revision.

The final goal is publication, first in journal form, then book. Inclusion in quality anthologies is also quite important. Each time we see our names in print, our poems or stories on pages with others, we get a thrill. It feels "important." We want to see it often.

When we are new to publishing, there are many questions. The world of publishing for fiction is much different from that of poetry, or so it seems to this poet. These comments will mostly relate to my experience with poetry and publication.

Wherever a writer considers submitting work, it is tremendously important to be familiar with the journal selected for the work. It is also extremely important to read the guidelines for submission very carefully and follow the rules fully.

On-Line Publication

One frequent question is that of on-line publication vs. print. I was asked recently to articulate my thoughts on this subject. I will paraphrase my responses:

A decade ago, on-line publication was less prestigious. That perception persists; therefore; when an editor picks my poem for print, which is expensive, it seems a greater investment in my work. But if someone expresses confidence in my work by posting to a literary web site or even a blog, if it is someone I trust and/or respect, I want to see the poem reach an audience.

To me, connecting with viable readers is my goal. If I have the opportunity of reaching maybe 250 - 300 readers in a print journal or 1,000 readers on line, I may just opt for the greater readership. Although we want to develop a list of publication credits that is respectable, diverse, and reflects print journals that have invested in our work, we also want to get our work to a large and diverse readership.

So my questions to myself include:

**Whose site is it? Someone I respect or a journal that has an on-line presence in addition to print?

**If it is a blog, whose blog? There are blogs with thousands of regular readers, just as Garrison Keillor has millions of listeners to his NPR program on poetry and Prairie Home Companion. Will I have more eyes on my poem here than in the Asheville Poetry Review or the Cincinnati Review, for instance?

**Is this person's market the appropriate one for my work? Will those reading the poem be as interested in what I am offering as much as the editor or blogger?

Many on-line publications are highly respected so there is no longer the stigma that existed earlier in the history of the internet. So each poet must decide for him/herself which direction to go. Either is honorable. There may also be a question of immediate publication rather than dealing with the process of sending work out to a journal, waiting for response, and maybe having to send it out someplace else.

Georgia Popoff teaches at the DWC and has had many poems published both on line and in print.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Small Press Spotlight :: Cinematheque Press

To wrap up this week of Small Press Spotlights, the DWC's John Lawton chats with Nate Slawson, head minister of the funk at Cinematheque Press. Stay tuned to the DWC blog for more of these revealing glimpses into the vibrant world of today's small presses.


1. What inspired you to start up Cinematheque Press?

Starting my own little deal had been on my radar for a while. When I was in grad school I worked for other publications, and, like the “real world” publishing biz I came from, there were moments—a lot of moments—when it flat-out sucked. No cooperation, no sense of responsibility, no listening. Ever since kindergarten I’ve been labeled as someone who doesn’t get along well with others. But I think that’s bum rap. I get steamed at crappy teamwork. So I work on Cinematheque all by my lonesome. Actually, that’s not true. I work with the writers as much as they want to collaborate on design, layout, fonts, colors, pricing, and more. And that’s a big part of my process and the why-I-do-what-I-do.

2. What future do you see of small presses in our media soaked culture?

Small presses are kicking ass right now. I think the indies, the non-profits, and the super tiny are putting out some, if not most, of the best work. One way I think of it: Who reads books and chapbooks from small presses? People who know all kinds of books and usually enjoy talking about them. Who sells product from small presses? Besides the presses themselves, your favorite independent/co-op bookstore. This is the textual world I like living in. What is a profit margin? What is a business model? I couldn’t care less. Sure, some small presses will fade, and some small presses will grow, but the passion and the work is what we know (if I’m allowed to kinda sorta speak for others, too).

I suppose I should mention something about the Internets, too. Some of the best journals and presses do their thing on the web. The way we use the Internet to deliver content is an evolutionary process. I have some wild ideas, and I’m sure others do, too. And what do we have to lose?

3. What and who inspired the design of O City?

This goes back to the end of my first answer. Wayne found the art. There are a number of references to airplanes and flying in the poems (“A Prayer (O City—)” has the part about the bomber). I came up with everything else. I think what I (and Wayne) like most about the cover are all of the bomber’s cut-away compartments and accompanying tiny labels, which are obviously text but too small to read. Without getting too classroom, the art is like the poems in that you (viewer/reader) want to know all the ins and outs, but, as Yo La Tengo said, you can’t have it all.

4. What is the most engaging/appealing about Mr. Miller's work for you?

I am a sucker for projects, long sequences, book-length poems, those types of things. And while Wayne writes in a style so different from me, I am mesmerized by his faculty to excite, inspire, and confound me. O City is a Wayne Miller book and it is beautiful. His last full-length collection, The Book of Props (Milkweed, 2009), is amazing: a world staring back at writer and reader, a world that’s both real and pantomime. The final section of the book is worth the cover price alone.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Small Press Spotlight :: Lame House Press

Today, the DWC's Sally Lloyd talks with Gina Myers, the proprietrix of Lame House Press.

Founded in Brooklyn, NY and now based in Saginaw, MI, Lame House Press irregularly publishes chapbooks from emerging poets.

1. What kind of material do you publish: prose, poetry, art, other?

Lame House Press currently publishes poetry only. At one time we were going to publish an artist book, but unfortunately it never came to be.

2. What are your criteria for choosing a collection of poems (or stories) to publish? What genres do you consider?

When the press first launched, I only published work by poets who had not yet previously published any chapbooks or full length collections.

The first few chapbooks were by people who I had gone to school with whose work I really liked and thought should have a wider audience.

As time has gone by, I have opened up to publishing work by previously published authors, though the most recent title, Nathan Hauke's In the Living Room, is his first chapbook. There have been times where I have been at a reading and really liked a particular series I heard read and simply asked the reader afterward if he or she would be willing to have Lame House publish the work, as was the case with Arlo Quint's
Photogenic Memory. Something similar happened after I heard Franklin Bruno read.

My main criteria, as absurd as this sounds, is that it is "good." Most importantly, it has to be work that I like and am excited by. The poetry skews toward experimental work and post-avant poetry (or whatever the kids are calling it these days).

3. How does the selection of your books help fulfill your mission and please share that mission.

I have never written a formal mission for the press, but I guess it would be something like: Lame House Press publishes limited edition hand-bound chapbooks by contemporary poets. Our mission is to support exciting up-and-coming (and established) writers by giving them a venue for their work to help them reach an audience. I think the selection of books helps fulfill this mission because I only publish work I am really excited about and want to promote. I really want my authors to receive positive feedback and hear that their books are getting out there in the world.

4. Choose one of your favorite publications and explain the reason for your selection.

Since the press started in 2005, I have only published 13 titles, so I know each of them very well and it would be hard for me to select a favorite. I do not accept open submissions, so each title I published has been solicited, which means I have seen work by that poet elsewhere that has made me want to ask to see a chapbook manuscript.

I guess how this all got started might be a good story. When I was at the New School, I became very good friends with Gabriella Torres and she had a really wonderful chapbook that I wanted to see published. She had it accepted for publication at a small chapbook publisher, but then the publisher stopped making books and said they were not going to be able to put it out after all. That's when I decided to start Lame House. I didn't have a grand plan--I just wanted to see Gabriella's book, Sister, in print. After that I turned to a couple of people I went to undergrad with, Hazel McClure and Mike Sikkema, with the same idea that they were wonderful poets whose work should be out there.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Small Press Spotlight :: One Story

One-Story, launched in 2002, is a literary magazine which features short stories written by people like me and you. The 3,000 – 8,000 word stories are published and mailed to the 7,500+ subscribers every three weeks. Subscribers receive their magazine which features only one story that has not been previously published, from one author. The authors who are chosen only get published in One Story once, so readers experience new, fresh, and different voices each issue. Stories can be submitted between September 1st and May 31st, so check out www.One-Story.com for specific guidelines and submit your story today! The magazine is great for those on the go. It’s small and lightweight design makes it easy to carry and read anywhere, whether on your commute to work, on a lunch break or right before you get some beauty rest. One-Story focuses on stories that “leave readers feeling satisfied and are strong enough to stand alone.”

The DWC's Kim DeHaven shot a few questions to Tanya Rey, from the Managing Editor for One Story. She took the time to answer a few questions I had about One Story and the writing world. She has an MFA in fiction from New York University and you can find her work at McSweeney's. (Information taken from www.One-Story.com)

KD: As the Managing Editor, what do you think makes a story an actual story, besides a beginning, middle and an end? In other words, what makes a story a good story? A story that, as your guidelines suggest, leaves the reader "feeling satisfied?"

TR: A "One Story story" is one that is brave enough to stand on its own. Since we only publish the one, our stories have to create their own world, suck the reader into it, and leave the reader thinking about the characters and/or world long after they're done reading. Some stories that we come across are very good stories, and might be good for other magazines where they'd appear between other stories or essays or poems, but would feel too slender on their own.

KD: Who is the general audience of One Story, and if there isn't one, what do you think draws people to read the stories that are published in your literary magazine?
TR: I think people are drawn to the stories in One Story because they know they'll get something new and different every time, since we only publish each author once and really strive to make every issue different from the last. We don't really publish for any one audience, and our subscribers come to us from so many different places that it makes for a very diverse group of readers.

KD: How does One Story advertise itself? Why should aspiring authors want to submit their work to this literary magazine, as opposed to the many others out there?
TR: We don't really advertise, but rely on word of mouth and small-scale promotions for publicity. We also are included in several anthologies each year, which brings us a good amount of new subscribers. Writers should want to be published with us because they get the undivided attention of our 10,000 readers every month, and because they get to work with a team of editors that work closely with them on their story until it's perfected for publication. Once a writer publishes with us, we consider them a part of the One Story family, and promote them on our site and at events.

KD: What advice or suggestions would you give to an aspiring author that might help them get work published, whether in One Story or elsewhere?

TR: Write often, then write well.

KD: If it is not too personal of a question, why do you enjoy working with One Story? Why do you have an interest in literary fiction?

TR: I enjoy working with One Story because I believe in our mission: to save the short story, and to get quality short fiction into the hands of as many readers as possible. I also love that One Story does so much to help out their authors, particularly the emerging authors.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Small Press Spotlight :: Slash Pine Press

Nate Pritts is the author of The Wonderfull Yeare & teaches at the DWC.

A few weeks ago, I posted about my small press publishing class & introduced a series of Small Press Spotlights. Here's a fascinating entry conducted by Daniel Reinhold (a poet with a new chapbook out called BEYOND METAPHOR) with Joseph Wood, the sparking engine of awesome behind Slash Pine Press:

Interview with Joseph Wood of Slash Pine Press

Slash Pine Press produces limited-run chapbooks of poetry and mixed-genre, and occasionally hosts off-the-beaten-path reading events, including the Slash Pine Poetry Festival held at the end of April.

How are small presses important?

Small presses are important because they allow people to become active in poetry, to start their own conversations about the world in all its manifestations (political, regional, personal, etc)--or continue conversations they've had with other poets, other presses, and other people in general. Having a small press allows one to see the wide swath of visions and interpretations of existance, of forcing you, the publisher, to be curious about other people's lives and their expressions of experience.

What do you see as the future of small presses?

I don't know what the future of small presses are: chapbook presses are a labor of love, often are run on people's own effort and time and money, and so I suppose it depends on if presses can survive the whatever is in store for our economy. I think also it depends if the DIY aesthetic stays alive and strong and necessary (and I think it always will).

What do you see as the advantage of print vs online journals?

Per medium: I like having the tactile presence of book in hand, the numerous envsionments of what a book can be (especially the chapbook)--thus the explosion of book arts. Internet publishing is valid and important, but it also changes the way one reads, and I have to say, as someone who has my own e-chap, I find the act of reading a book on screen distracting and subject to other focii. But I'm also not very tech-savvy, so these are my biases.

What is the mission of your press beyond publishing and community?

The mission of the press: it is community, man, pure and simple. That's why we have so many events, do large events, and involve people of varying aesthetics and reputations. It is so easy to be alone with writing--you write alone, send out alone, etc. And sure, we publish chaps and we love our writers and putting their work out their--to articulate views and experiences that challenge convention and apathy. But that gets lonesome, and I like to think the small presses and the readings allow people who would never come together otherwise to share ideas, to simply be together. We also use undergraduates as interns for us--and not just Creative Writing minors--and we like to think we're giving people an experiential view into what is happening on the ground levels of contemporary lit--if only a small sliver.

What advice would you give to poets new to exploring the world of small press publishing?

Advice for new poets: the typical stuff, I suppose. Read a shitload and without adherence to taxonomy or aesthetic. Look to see who read who, learn to articulate clearly what you dislike as much as you like--and why. But mostly, live life. Be curious.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Devoted Community of Writers

by Cathy Gibbons

Jennifer Pashley asked me to write about my experience at the Downtown’s Writer's Center. First, I’d like to say, "Thank you DWC PRO!"

I started the DWC PRO poetry program in the fall of 2008 not knowing quite what expect. I applied to the program because I wanted to be challenged to learn more about writing in ways that would push my work forward. It was a surprise to find a place in my hometown that was affordable, offered classes with highly educated and diverse writers and was not too complicated to weave into my busy schedule of work and family responsibilities. All of those things proved to be true.

What I also found is a devoted community of fellow writers, as well as experienced writer/teachers willing to give their knowledge and time to us. Working with the same group of poets throughout the program in critique and craft classes is especially appreciated. It is a delight to have an informed and trusted group of readers familiar with each other’s work.

At the risk of sounding a little hokey, I’ve had a lot of fun at the DWC. The mix of personalities has created spirited and intersting conversations. That’s my kind of fun. I’ve been challenged to think more deeply and to peel back the layers to find what is true in my poems – and I’ve learned new (to me) approaches and techniques to help me get there.

We are working now on our manuscripts, the crowning project of the 2-year program. It isn’t easy but I’m further along in the process than I might have been on my own. I’m looking forward to seeing what my classmates have put together. We are so different but we’ve been through it together and their poems will be like old friends

Friday, March 12, 2010

Forward Motion: Writing and the Writing Community at DWC PRO

by Peter McShane

It's true that writing is a solitary pursuit, but ironically you can't do it alone.

When I decided to try my hand at writing a memoir, the words flowed, thousands of them. It read like a confessional. A few family members said it was terrific. They love me; I knew better. I wanted to write something that non-relatives would read.

I decided to take a few courses at the DWC and quickly learned that I didn't know anything about writing. In the words of acclaimed writer and educator John Gardner, the key to writing stories is creating for the reader a vivid and continuous dream. This holds true whether it's creative non-fiction or fiction. It's difficult to pull it off with exposition alone. Adding characters who interact draw the reader into their lives. Successful writers use a combination of exposition and dialog. This helps to create what Gardner calls profluence, or forward motion, drawing the reader in and holding his/her attention.

What's next after you've learned all this procedural stuff, like genre, style, theme, point of view, plotting; the nuts and bolts? It's finding readers to test drive your work; people willing to read through your early drafts and tell you what works and what doesn't. That's what workshops are all about. It's an eye-opening, humbling experience, but your writing will improve. You'll get encouragement from your instructors and peers, and one-on-one tutorials with experienced, published writers who provide valuable insight and suggestions for fine-tuning your work.

All this is what you get in the DWC PRO program: people serious about writing stories and instructors who validate your work. More importantly, it's an introduction to the writer's community. This is how successful writers do it. It's not easy, but the reward is a reader who can't put your story down.

Peter McShane and nine other DWC PRO students will be featured readers this spring, and in June will comprise the very first DWC PRO graduating class.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sapphire Goes Hollywood Swingin'

There is a trend with the writers invited to read for the Downtown Writer’s Center: they often receive greater national recognition after they have been booked for us. Take, for example, the fact that both Ted Kooser and Charles Simic were named Poet Laureate. Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon was nominated for the National Book Award. Others have received honors or they were already prize winners before they visited Syracuse to share their work with our crew.

Now it has happened again but this time with the stamp of Hollywood’s approval. Sunday evening, Sapphire was among all the glamor of the Red Carpet. A poet and novelist, Sapphire is experiencing a second wave with her 1994 novel, Push, as adapted for the screen in the movie Precious. Sapphire read at the DWC in 2006. At that time, Push was a bit of an underground novel. Push is a bold, courageous look into one story based on one young woman facing extraordinary, terrible circumstances. The novel depicts both the horror of what a human can inflict or experience as well as the great odds that a human can overcome to achieve personal strength, self-esteem, even salvation.

With this novel, Sapphire opened a discussion about incest and rape at a time when we, as a society, were still silent regarding these “family secrets.” The brutal truth behind the veil is the high percentage of women who are raped, either by a stranger or someone known to them. Some say one in three, others one in four. Either statistic is chilling. Each represents a gash in that life that will never be fully healed, a person who may never be able to trust again. These data do not address the depth of pain associated with multiple occurrences of incest, sometimes for years.

In the late 80s, when this story is set, we were very closed-mouthed about incest and domestic abuse. But Sapphire needed to instigate the conversation. We were closer to exposing the horrors and commonality of these experiences when the book was released. Sapphire chose to be a part of that developing transparency.

Now, in the 21st century, the book has become film and has achieved critical acclaim. Had Lee Daniels, the director, won the Oscar, he would have been the first African American to receive the award. Instead, the first woman won so we can hardly find much fault with the Academy there. Another milestone has challenged the history. The many other nominations and awards that were given to Precious were warranted but also signal a change in America. We are more able to face our demons to tell the truth.

I believe that both the movie and the book are critically important as “herstory.” It is not easy to sit through the film. It is not comfortable to experience the novel. That is not the intention of the tale. But there is a heroic hope, just as there is hope for Haiti, or for our young people in urban schools, as there was for those who survived the Holocaust, or those who cross borders for work. Humans can survive just about anything but it is a confounding mystery as to how we do it.

The release of the film, and the recognition for its achievements, has spurred a challenging discussion over the internet about the depiction of African Americans, and Black men in particular. It has been fascinating to listen to the discourse, which has been quite passionate. There have been heated debates about the aspects of casting (light-skinned vs. dark-skinned actors for key roles), the negative view of men, the potential correlation of that one semi-fictional family to African American families in general. Noted writer and scholar Ishmael Reed has been very forthcoming with his objections and Sapphire has responded in print. There has been a lot of “How dare they?!” attached to the project. Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry have been implicated in the process because they took the film from its premier at Sundance last year as a low-budget indie film to major distribution. How dare they?!

I ask, when is any piece of art speaking for all of a culture? Were the Huxtables speaking for all of Black America? No. But are there upper middle class families like them? Yes, just as there are families much like the Evans family of the situation comedy from back in the day, Good Times. Is Waiting to Exhale, either the book or the movie, a statement of all Black culture? I see horrid stereotypes, particularly of women, in that story. Is the fact that the Hip Hop artist Common is in the trailer of another Hollywood movie as a pretty-faced thug with a gun a statement as well? I think so. Why does he take those roles? When will he be a male lead? A positive image on the big screen? His music breaks the stereotype of Hip Hop expectations but his acting career is sadly typical.

It cannot be escaped that humans have tremendous capacity for hatred and unconscionable deeds. We have to speak of the horrors to overcome them. We can open the discussion one story at a time. Sapphire was able to do that with her fiction and then, by patiently waiting for the right ensemble to bring her words to image, we now have Precious.

The up side is that Sapphire is being rewarded well for her book. The film is honored by many. Push has been reissued for the mass market. Target included it as one of their featured books a few weeks ago. It is on the shelves in Wegmans. I assume the royalty checks are huge. Sapphire deserves recognition and remuneration for the book. It is not perfect. It was a raw piece from an emerging writer. But hers is an important book.

Sunday, Mo’nique won the Best Supporting Actress title. In fact, she has swept the category in all the major awards this season for this brutal character portrayal. She was magnificent and chilling. The film won the Oscar for best screenplay adaptation. Unfortunately, as the Oscar recipients accepted their awards the other evening, neither thanked Sapphire nor her novel, although she was seated in the audience.

I hope all the other glory that has been afforded Sapphire makes up for the criticism and the lack of gratitude for all of her effort to create the work and then get it to print, then the long wait until she found the team she trusted to bring her vision to the screen. I will write to Sapphire and tell her that I am grateful. She changed me as a human and gave me strength to be clear about my truth as well as to maintain hope in spite of any and all adversity. She also gave me clear vision to my own purpose as a writer. We must start from the place of truth, no matter what the reaction may be.

Georgia Popoff teaches at the Downtown Writer's Center and in schools throughout NYS. In Fall 2009, she taught a class on contemporary African American poets for DWC PRO. She is a frequent poster to this blog.

Why Go PRO?

By Philip Memmer, who, when he's not directing, can be found here.

Since we started DWC PRO two years ago, a number of people have asked “What exactly is a certificate program?”

It’s not a bad question. All of us are well-acquainted with the idea of applying to a college degree program, and we are also familiar with the idea of simply taking a class at a community venue. But DWC PRO is somewhere between the two. It is a two-year time commitment, with a number of requirements (some quite strenuous)… so it is clearly similar in ways to a graduate writing program. On the other hand, PRO does not grant a degree, nor does it provide any kind of accreditation that can be used professionally… in that way, it is similar to a community workshop.

In our view, what DWC PRO provides is a way to take your literary training seriously, without completely rearranging your life. The cost is reasonable, the workshop hours are manageable even with a full-time job, and you don’t have to pack up and move; that’s the easy part. The hard part, of course, is the work itself: you will take 11 classes and 6 tutorials over the course of two years. You will work with six or more different authors, all of whom will make demands of you and your writing. And you will be expected to become part of a community of writers with goals similar to your own.

None of that hard work will earn you a degree. If your end goal is to someday teach at a University, or to earn a Masters degree, then DWC PRO is not for you. But if you are simply interested in learning more about the craft of writing, looking for a way to challenge both yourself and your work, and for a push to complete your first book manuscript, then the PRO program could be exactly what you need.

Stay tuned this week for more on DWC PRO, from our own PRO students.

Philip Memmer is the author of three books of poems: Lucifer: A Hagiography (Lost Horse Press, 2009), which was awarded the 2008 Idaho Prize for Poetry; Sweetheart, Baby, Darling (Word Press, 2004), and Threat of Pleasure (Word Press, 2008). His poems have appeared in journals such as Poetry, Mid-American Review and Poetry Northwest, and in several anthologies. He is director of the Arts Branch of the YMCA, and founder of the DWC.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Spring Is Close - Come Celebrate with Poetry This Evening

The air will be clear and bright this evening, according to the forecast. Are you feeling cabin fever? Then plan on being at the Downtown Writer's Center this evening. Our guests are the DWC's own Nate Pritts and his good friend and educator, Matt Hart, who is traveling in from Ohio to share his work with our community.

Nate Pritts is the author of The Wonderfull Yeare (Cooper Dillon, 2010), Sensational Spectacular (BlazeVOX, 2007) and Honorary Astronaut (Ghost Road Press, 2008).  The founder & primary editor of H_NGM_N, on on-line journal of contemporary poetry, Nate currently teaches at the DWC. Now we get a chance to feature Nate not as educator but for the poetry he creates.

Matt Hart is the author of two full length books of poetry, Who’s Who Vivid (Slope Editions, 2006) and You Are Mist (Moor Books, forthcoming), as well as numerous chapbooks. A co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking, & Light Industrial Safety, Matt teaches at the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

The Spring calendar of readings will be released soon but you can get a jumpstart on the season with this last of the Winter line-up. The reading starts at 7:00 p.m. and, as always is free. We encourage you to bring a friend as well to share the evening. The Downtown Writer's Center is located off the main lobby of the Downtown YMCA, 340 Montgomery Street, near Syracuse's Columbus Circle. We hope to see you!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Imaginarium of Matt Hart

by Georgia Popoff

Reading Matt Hart’s poetry, I find myself negotiating undercurrents of a “normal life:” the job, the baby, the wife, the dog who definitely wants to move faster than her human, the confusion of a morning started too early; all of the elements of a life reaching middle stages, all its trappings but no ordinary observations wending into typical narrative form here.

Matt Hart agrees to let us witness the Venn Diagram of his inner thoughts, where his love of language meets his rock-n-roll heart. Coffee and the paper are not enough. I am reminded that there is a period of rock-n-roll I missed. Matt has archived that era for himself, and the blare of punk seeps through as he wanders an interior landscape, where the topography is constructed of fanciful images and the orchestration of the poet’s daily query to establish place, create meaning, dispel wonder. He is also bold enough to resurrect the poetic “O” and get away with it.

He risks our meddling. His reader has a spyglass of Matt’s specifications to witness the confusion a man feels when suddenly he looks around at his own trappings to see a world he created and, at the same time, stumbled into without realizing. Take, for instance, these lines:

Tonight the sun is shining, and I am joyful,
but why? The world is weird wired
and white as hydrangeas. I am joyful
in my blue plaid mind, even as I think
terrible thoughts against my wife,
my daughter, the leaders of my country.
There is no end to my terrible joy.
I am like a wolf with an egg in its mouth,
the yolk running over its mad lip curling.

The poet is not about to stray from his family’s routine but still there is a dark foreboding. He is at ease in his station as professor yet I hear a challenge in his poems, a slow rumbling of “Why are you listening to ME?” In the midst of this ongoing questioning of the universe, the magic realism never ceases to amaze Matt.

His is a world influenced by the masters who have gone before him, not just the sparse Zen of Philip Whelan or the angst of Johnny Rotten, but the singsong of Dr. Seuss, the acid touch of Lewis Carroll. There is the craft of the finest and the storm of a summer night. The Bootsy bassline and the order of a Wordsworth garden. Every poem gives me reason to stop, read it phrase by phrase, question the song of wind chime in late winter, challenge my own poetry to a duel of fascination.

As I sit in a seeming silence, the timer for the living room light to fool the potential interlopers ticking a frantic pulse, the late winter breeze outside creating a random etude, my coffee growing cold too quickly in my cup, I think maybe, just perhaps, I get it. Matt will let me know on Friday, as he breathes these words into air.

Don't miss Matt Hart and Nate Pritts at the DWC Friday night, 7 pm.

Georgia Popoff is a well-traveled teaching artist, community poet and currently serves as interim managing editor for Comstock Review. She is definitely someone you should know.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Calm Poem

by visiting author, Matt Hart, who can also be found here.


Several years ago I was in a poetry workshop with Tony Hoagland. During a one-on-one meeting about my work, he noted all the noise and disruption in my poems—all the feedback and chaos—and said “Here’s what I want you to do: write a calm poem and call it “Calm Poem.” Make every line a line of clarity and tranquility.” He said that, or something like it... Anyway, his point was that I was garbling what I wanted/needed to say, clouding the issues in a lot of unnecessary roughness—sabotaging myself with fireworks—which are maybe thrilling for a few minutes, but don’t last very long. Somehow I needed to find a way to keep the lights on in my work, even if what it illuminated was completely weird and chaotic.

Here’s the poem I wrote:

Calm Poem

Of all the calm poems I've written

This calm poem

is definitely my favorite.

It came at the end of a calamitous day—

I couldn’t remember what to say

during a lecture.

I cried while reading

a philosophical preface.

When I looked in the mirror

I saw pieces of a bluejay

and the world turned

my stomach

in the gathering dust.

Forget it, said the poem.

Now you’re safe at home.

Many people love you.

No need to create a scene.

No need to punctuate

the roar of the page.

Go to sleep and dream

you’re a giant paper snowflake.

There is nothing to be afraid of.


What’s interesting to me is that traveling around giving readings and teaching workshops, I often hear people expressing a desire to make their poems wilder, stranger, more surprising and dynamic. Almost never have I heard someone wishing to make their poems calm down and behave. And yet, aren’t there occasions when staying calm is the most surprising and weird thing of all? As a result of this exercise, I have come to believe, even though I’m not always capable of acting on it, that to say a thing plainly and deliberately with clarity—with calm—is among the most poetic (i.e. surprising, strange and depth-charged) ways of saying anything.

With this in mind, I’ve adapted Tony’s assignment to me as one I sometimes use with my own students, especially when they’re being weird for weird’s sake and seem to have more on their minds than mere weirdness. This is how I put it to them:

Write a Calm Poem. In fact, use Calm Poem as the title, so that when we gather round the table next week we can survey the varieties and vagaries of calmness. Is calm merely the opposite of calamity? Is it a warm bath? Is it listening to Coltrane (the early stuff) with the lights down low? Is it chicken soup and sickness and clouds overhead? For some of you it may be soccer, and for others, a Sunday Stroll. For still others, what’s calm is a hardcore band for breakfast. I don’t have any particular designs on calmness (I’m barely calm at all). I’m looking for the truth; I’m looking for a world to kick back in, some place to have myself a bottle of wine, some place with a view of the ocean. Remember, too, that what’s calm in a poem may have nothing to do with its content. Calmness may be the result of purely formal maneuvers—the lengths of your lines, the kinds of stanzas you use, the way you arrange the words (and the white spaces) on the page. Pacing may be everything. What does calmness mean to you and/or how does it go down in language? Be steady, breathe easy, take yourselves away. Nobody panic. Stay as steady and calm as you possibly can. There are a million emergencies to contend with, and someone has to feel at home in them.


Here’s one by my friend Nate Pritts that’s incredible for its steadfast attentiveness to the moment and also for the way it manages chaos—that’s what calm is in a sense managing chaos in the moment:

Calm Poem

It’s November 15th, 2009, & I’ve never been

Nate Pritts today. I’m 35 with about two months

tacked on & I’m taking your advice. Early

morning & there’s a halo of helicopters

harrowing the blue, sending word through the

static about the crowded intersections—

all that crosstown traffic—& I stepped

right in front of the car. I knew the speed.

I don’t care if it’s calm. It’s okay if it’s calamity.

Early morning & the buzz is circling my head

like a certainty. Three or four times a day,

I feel like I’m about to get shot out of myself,

like there’s a vibration approaching catastrophe

& I need to run. I’m thinking of language

like it’s something delicate I can hold in my hand.

I’m worried this might break. Early morning

& I don’t care if it’s starless. It’s okay that it’s

endless but full of endings. It’s November 15th,

it’s 2009, it’s me taking your advice because I’m

left without my normal faith in talk, that I could

fill a room with voice & tip the scales.

So hard to get through to you isn’t something

I’m saying but something I feel & the you isn’t

you. I don’t care if it’s indeterminate. It’s okay

that it’s not referential. Early morning & sun

gathers slowly in the clouds. November 15th

& I’m Nate Pritts right now more than ever &

the trees are already empty. It’s not fall

in Syracuse. It’s not fall; it’s fell. It’s exquisitely

dark. It’s this terrible. It’s this fierce destructive.

It’s the end of my favorite season ever & the beginning

of my dark poetry & I don’t care if it’s dark

as long as there’s light. It’s okay that I’m on my knees

to restart the fire as the damp wind whips

tumultuous & elegant. My faith is that more & more

will outweigh the less & less, that an I & a you

accumulates. I’m trying to be calm with the bomb

in my hand because it seems right to pretend

I don’t hear it counting down to one from two.

And this one’s by a former student of mine, Scott Dennis, who of course found a way through the assignment to something marvelously SCOTT DENNIS:


These are the tricks that make us calm:

The last bits of light

burn images of peace

into my skin.

I dream of dream-catchers

and of things salvaged.

I dream of things primitive

and of communication.

Ritual stimulates

me to my grave,

where the shaman takes me

and helps me survey the wreckage,

where my hands will not reach

my weaponry and my

face melts off my skull.

The only thing you have to lose in an exercise like this is pretense and the chains of expectation, but what you have to gain is something clearly and radiantly yourself.

Matt Hart is the author of two full length books of poetry, Who’s Who Vivid (Slope Editions, 2006) and You Are Mist (Moor Books, forth coming), as well as numerous chapbooks. A co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking, & Light Industrial Safety, Matt teaches at the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

This Brand New Treasure: Nate Pritts' Wonderfull Yeare

by Jack Davis

Yesterday, in an delicate box, perhaps a hundred years old, I found a copy of a book called The Wonderfull Yeare – A Shepherd’s Calendar by Nate Pritts. I may not have given it a second thought, but it was a book of poems.

And, as I thumbed through the leaves, the poet Pritts took me to another place; one of Chaplinesque nimbleness, dusky form and shadowed structures. Mr. Pritts sculpted golems of transitive vision with pinched flesh on bent knees in quiet prayer. And these prayers cast seed of private virtue and personal need to secluded places warm and moist.

He traced the cracks of reason and mercy with a voice as articulate as his perspective. Some poems, like the “Sonnets for the fall,” left lasting impressions in mourning mud. Nate proclaims that even the thinning light finds cricket sounds, but no leaves.

I must say it was a real pleasure to find this brand new treasure in that delicate old box. As the last several years have left us all on the cusp of some dangerously poor poetry, it is a delight that Nate Pritts has saved us a few pages of real art.

The Wonderfull Yeare by Nate Pritts has found print because it had a choice. Nate is going places, but don’t fool yourself, this book is about where he’s been.

Jack Davis is a DWC student, poet, and all around cool guy.