Jun 27
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Your Own Back Yard

You're good enough for the nationals, no one disputes that; but after 5 or so years wondering why The New Yorker and Ploughshares don't publish you --

there's at least one literary journal or rag nearby. Your big city has several; your home state has a score. And, insofar as the fit is right, start submitting your work to those closest to home. Advantages:

1. Local editors will see your work and know you exist. If you're published, local writers will read your work (they're in the same journal) and when you meet them at literary gatherings (because you DO go) your name will sound familiar and you can make some friends.

2. Local writers will introduce you to local editors, because editors are writers too. See if you like them. Take them up on any offers to read their slush pile or hang out at headquarters. And then submit your best work. Do it soon-- before you're on their masthead.

3. Publish in two or three local journals and keep showing up for events, and local literati will seek you out for readings of your work.

4. Doing some readings may lead to teaching a workshop, judging a contest, or to a guest appearance in front of a college class. And somebody is always assembling an anthology. Now that he or she knows you, you might get asked to submit some work. Bingo; you go into a book without even trying.

I wrestled with the biggies and didn't get much of anywhere until I tried my homies. Does that mean I picked the low-hanging fruit? The above got me jobs that I live on, tons of great friends, and published. By their fruits ye shall know them!
Jun 27
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Chapbook or Magazine Publication? Which is Best?

Real life-question: Poet has a sheaf of excellent poems, all unpublished. Should she skip ahead & enter them as a manuscript in a chapbook competition -- or first try to print individual poems in journals, and THEN do the chapbook thing?

Answer: No journal wants to publish poems that appeared first in a chapbook. I'd try first to publish individual poems in as many local print journals as possible, setting a deadline of one year; then -- no matter what the result -- I would make a chapbook ms. Local journals will further your work much faster than will national publications. How so? See next blog entry. Send to 'em all. Don't enter contests, just send the poems. And send simultaneously!

Think you have some good poems? Get a bunch of them out to your local journals by Dec. 15!
Jun 27
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Are We Feeling Better Yet?


Some contributing writers and the editors at the book launch today, 11/19, for the fabulous new anthology Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America (Penultimate Press), edited by Colleen McKee and Amanda Stiebel. Book will be on Amazon.com very soon; $19.95; click here to see and order directly from the publisher, St. Louis's only nonprofit press. The book -- 21 essays, three years in the making -- will make a great holiday gift for any woman finding herself in contact with the U.S. health care hydra. In the photo, left to right: Amanda Stiebel, Cathy Luh, Janet Edwards, Corrine McAfee, Denise Bogard, Colleen McKee, Catherine Rankovic. Penultimate Press, run by Winnie Sullivan, is a nonprofit organization. Taken at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Jun 27
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Write Some Coded Communication Today!

There are 17 writers represented by the 22 poems in the anthology Poems from Guantanamo: The Inmates Speak (University of Iowa Press, 2007). This slender book represents only a tiny percentage of thousands of prisoner-written poems because the Pentagon wouldn't clear most of them for publication. Why? Seems "The U.S. government contends that poetry presents a 'special risk' to national security, since the form lends itself to coded communication."

From an interview about the book.

Andy Worthington: And Abdur Rahim Muslim Dost, the Afghan [prisoner] poet, wrote 25,000 lines of poetry, much of it scratched onto Styrofoam cups and passed from cell to cell?

Marc Falkoff (editor of Poems from Guantanamo): Yes.

So being able to write today using a pen or computer, even though writing is a big pain and isn't going well, I'm glad. There was one former POW who once said, "A good day is one on which the lock is on the INSIDE of the door."

Here's one of Dost's poems that made it into the anthology:

Cup Poem I

What kind of spring is this,
Where there are no flowers and
The air is filled with a miserable smell?
Jun 27
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What's Really Wrong with Poetry Book Contests

Check out this essay by David Alpaugh, published Nov. 12, or just the excerpts below, if you've suspected there's something wrong with the exponentially growing number of poetry-book contests -- bet it'll articulate some of your uneasy feelings! Samples from the essay:
  • "Today, a short search of the web turns up over 300 chapbook and full-collection competitions . . .Even if contests merely continue to escalate at the rate of five or six extra competitions per year, an astounding minimum of 50,000 poetry books will be published as distinguished award-winners by the end of this century!"
  • "Before Emily Dickinson’s heap of 1,775 untitled poems could be competitive, she would have to discard 1,700 of them; give each of the remaining 75 a title; sort them into three thematic batches, each with a section title and epigraph; and come up with a catchy “umbrella” title (Wild Nights might be a hit with student-screeners)."
  • "Poetry book contests privilege serious poems over humorous ones; pathos over wit; “sincerity” over virtuosity; they eschew satire and persona; and devalue variety in favor of consistency of theme, form, tone, and “voice.” A swerve into the ineffable in the last few lines of each poem will keep your work “open” and “risky” in conformance with current MFA workshop practice."
That last one might not be entirely accurate anymore; I sense from recent winners that "the ineffable" is old hat, and satire and wit are coming back.
Jun 27
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Reading Yourself

Chuck Berry hates to listen to his own records. Certain movie stars hate watching their own movies. I once spent a year and a half avoiding the print version of an article I published. Finally I read it. It wasn't half bad. In fact it was good.

Have you re-read yourself lately? If you are down, it might cheer you up. A few nights ago I got caught up re-reading my own books. I thought, "Man, I said that really well! It holds up! How did I do that? Can I ever do it that well again?" and although I know I could, given the same situation, for a few minutes I doubted it.

I'd say that was my own weird thinking, except I once interviewed a sitar genius named Imrat Khan who said he thinks the same thing when he listens to his own recordings -- that he could never surpass what he's already done, that future work will somehow be lacking.

These are fears, and fears have no existence apart from their host. Maybe Chuck Berry, 82, focuses on the future, not the past. I do appreciate the past for things accomplished and lessons learned. But a focus on the future -- even if it's only a contest deadline or writers' gathering that's coming up -- is a definite plus for the mental health of artists.
Jun 27
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Gigs, a.k.a. Literary Readings

To get literary "gigs" -- invitations to read one's work to an audience -- you circulate, belong to clubs and groups, know people, pass on the names of underappreciated writers, and stay active on the local literary scene, whether publishing, editing, teaching, or being in the audience. I'm preparing for three gigs: November 14 (poetry), Regional Arts Commission, across from the Pageant Theater, 7 p.m.; November 19, UMSL (prose); then another on December 13, Black Bear Bakery, 2 p.m.

I love gigs because I write to communicate, and they give me a chance to air favorite works that for whatever reason aren't published: because they're new; because they're risky or offbeat; because I haven't a clue as to who'd publish them. A poet is a one-man band -- has to hold the audience as Aerosmith or an opera singer would hold it, without any of the instruments, props, amps or roadies. Just a voice and words on paper. This is one of the greatest challenges anyone could ever face. And one of the most rewarding to ace, whether you get money or not (mostly not). I strive to give a polished performance that offers a few twists and shocks.

You'll see and hear what I mean.
Jun 27
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Writers' Agonies, Volume I, Chapter I

As a writer, I maintain certain unexamined assumptions I do not wish to examine at all. To wit:

1. Words are the whole world.
2. All words are equal.

These assumptions mean I agonize not only over my own work, but at scarifying length over all words ever spoken or written to me. I can spin up whole rainbows of agony out of a lone "Sorry" scrawled on a rejection slip, and fury, too, because whoever wrote it doesn't seem really sorry! I can't seem to weigh and sort words according to their source or context or tone. Some people say that words are mere hot air, or can be ignored! Not I! To me, all words are serious! You can imagine how I fare in a culture that is jerry-built on kidding and banter. For example:

A--HOLE:
Hi there, Eagle Beak!

ME:
Eagle Beak?

A--HOLE:
It's a joke! Just a joke! (Punches ME on the arm.) Can't you take a joke?

ME:
(Looks daggers.)

A--HOLE:
Ha, ha! I was just kidding. (Pounds ME on the arm repeatedly.) Geez!

ME:
You're a f-----g a--hole.

A--HOLE:
A-ha, ha, ha!
Jun 27
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Plain Talk About Agents

For serious dirt on Why You Need to Have an Agent, please see this link to a blog by Editorial Ass (a recovering Editorial Assistant). It's probably all true. Repeat: Publishing is a business. If you don't do business, you won't get your books published by major houses.
Jun 27
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The Wasted Day

Plans fell through and I was alone. Painfully disappointed I packed a picnic and camera. Drove about 10 miles and hiked for 3 hours, with lunch near the end of it. Took 98 photographs, mostly flora. Wondered why four of my closest friends, intimates, are sick, all at the same time. Decided it couldn't be me. (Could it?) Needing a guaranteed intoxicant I listened to ABBA on the drive home. Back home, listened to disco CDs. Sent 2 encouraging emails to sick intimates, attaching photos. Wondered why I don't listen to more music, even though I have terrible taste. Admired the hummingbirds sipping homemade nectar. It's not red but they like it just the same. Tinkered with non-writing hobby while watching bad TV. With relief found somebody to IM with for a while before bed.

Very slowly, in the attic of my mind, began to think again about the 2 book manuscripts I've left in the pipeline for a couple of months because I don't know what my next move should be.
Jun 27
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Nabokov's Day Job

Today I learned that Vladimir Nabokov spent six years in the 1940s organizing the butterfly collection of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. He told species apart by looking at their (microscopic) genitals and wouldn't consider any other way. He collected their genitals. His books are loaded with butterfly references and inferences. In upstate New York he discovered and named the tiny Karner Blue butterfly. Apparently it doesn't hurt one's career to obsess about something in life besides writing (if, like Nabokov, you can rely on your wife to drive you everywhere and run the household -- i.e., you have "an angel in the house"). But a 3-inch beauty from Missouri I photographed today -- although it looks blue and black to me -- is in fact called a "Red-spotted Purple" butterfly -- Limenitis arthemis astyanax, as Nabokov might say.

Jun 27
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That, Plus 50 Cents, Will Get You Coffee

I once edited an autobiography by a Holocaust survivor. The author was 10 when transported to Auschwitz with his father, an M.D., late in the war. The doctor told the Nazis – then badly in need of a camp M.D. – that the boy was 16 years old and his assistant. Both were therefore allowed to live, and both survived.

However, because the author was so young when imprisoned, he retains few vivid memories about the camp and its inhabitants. Most of the book is about the rest of his life.

The author’s question was: Did I think he could get an agent for the book? It was, after all, a memoir by a Holocaust survivor. Life stories don’t get any more dramatic than that.

My research turned up these surprising (to me) facts: Holocaust memoirs are “a dime a dozen.” Agents, publishers and readers don’t buy such books out of respect for the survivors. They snap them up only if such memoirs are very detailed and shocking and revelatory, and if the book centers on the camp experience. Agents and publishers want THAT so badly that they will seize upon phony Holocaust memoirs cooked up according to that recipe.

Very carefully and politely I told the author my crushing conclusion: If he wanted to see his memoir in print, he should self-publish. He wouldn’t stoop to that. Can’t blame him. But since that time, someone has tried to establish a Holocaust-memoir vanity-publishing business to make themselves some money from these dime-a-dozen manuscripts. I’m not kidding.

And you want an agent for that memoir you wrote about your relative with Alzheimer’s? Your broken hip? Your infertility treatments? Save time and effort: Publish it yourself.