Jun 27
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Solzhenitsyn

"He wrote, that while an ordinary man was obliged 'not to participate in lies,' artists had greater responsibilities. 'It is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie!'"

That's from the NYT last week, after Solzhenitsyn died. Mainly I remember how he and his bone-shattering books embarrassed the liberal intelligentsia in the 1980s, when I lived in Boston among, but not of, the Cambridge cognoscenti. They didn't like his shamelessly truthful chronicles of the great failure of the Soviet experiment -- such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Gulag Archipelago, or even Cancer Ward. They spoke of his work as "fiction."

Russians have a saying, "Eat bread and salt and speak the truth." Solzehnitsyn was a blunt and truthful witness and that's worth more than a hundred witty and cultured Cambridge cognoscenti.
Jun 27
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"Starving in a Garret"

Writer (usually poet) is always, in the popular mind, "starving in a garret." I wondered whence came this phrase and image of our profession. Looked it up. The original "born in a cellar and living in a garret"comes from the 18th century. The word "starving" replaces "living" in the19th century, whence comes this romantic 1856 painting, "Death of Chatterton." Seventeen-year-old poet Thomas Chatterton committed suicide in 1770. He actually WAS going to starve, and chose to poison himself. The phrase and image endure; has nobody come up with anything more accurate? I mean, bummer!

Credit Lord Byron, in "Childe Harold" (1812) for making a powerfully attractive figure out of a brooding, reckless young artist who, in real life, would give anybody a pain. I can see Byronic poets wearing black and smoking cigarettes on Delmar Blvd. even today.
Jun 27
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Hell Freezes Over; Publisher Gives Away Books

The late Carol Bly wrote a probing, wholly adult textbook on short-fiction writing, called The Passionate, Accurate Story (1990, Milkweed Editions), always my choice as the fiction text for my Introduction to Creative Writing course. Heather Clark of the Washington University Bookstore told me that Milkweed had 5 copies left, not enough to fill my order for this fall, and it wasn't printing more, but would send those 5 if I wanted; plus:

"[Milkweed] cannot technically sell the books to us since it has been declared out of print. They are going to 'donate' them to us. I cannot charge a student for a book that was donated to us. So I gave her my shipping number so we can be charged for the shipping. I will contact you when the books arrive and give them to you to distribute to your students, or for your students to share. If you have any questions, let me know."

Free books for my students, direct from the publisher!? What a delight! For such a great book! (It's available used.) Ms. Bly (1930-2007; pictured) would have loved this! I'd be a fool to ask questions!
Jun 27
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How to Anger a Poet

Now, I know enough to PICK my battles, but for Christ's sake PLEEZE, America, cut me some slack and don't show me any more course descriptions like this one I saw today:

"POETS AT HEART": We’re all poets at heart. In this course we will address several poetry forms and devices. Class reports will be made defining these forms and devices and each week we will write and read poems (our own and other poets’). Our goal is to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of poetry, along with enhancing our abilities to write poetry. Remember, anybody can write poetry. (Text: Poetry For Dummies.)
Jun 27
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When Poets Gave Orders

"We order that the poets’ rights be revered:

  • To enlarge the scope of the poet’s vocabulary with arbitrary and derivative words (word-novelty).
  • To feel an insurmountable hatred for the language existing before their time.
  • To push with horror off their proud brow the wreath of cheap fame that You have made from bathhouse switches [clearer translation: "from toothpicks"].
  • To stand on the rock of the word “we,” amidst the sea of boos and outrage."
The above is from the Russian Futurists' manifesto, "A Slap in the Face of Public Taste," 1912. By comparison, our poets are people-pleasers and wusses. Each of these century-old demands is, for poets in 2008, a total taboo. We say, "I don't think your experiment with coining new words is very successful," and "I don't know where you'll find a market for this," and "If only I could make it into Best American Poetry 2009," and "I can't figure out who is that collective 'we' being referenced in your poem."

By comparison, how timid we are! And how powerless! Are those things linked?
Jun 27
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It Hurts to Be First

A small group of fellow writers, acquaintances, good people all, asked me to meet with them to get some guidance about a self-publishing project. I asked to be paid $100 for this, and through the contact person we set a date to meet.

Then the contact person sent a polite and apologetic email saying the group was following the leads I had suggested to them previously, had learned what they felt they needed to know, and frankly some of them had been uncomfortable with the idea of paying me -- someone they knew -- and therefore had decided not to meet with me after all.

It hurt. Clearly, the money was the sticking point. I feel embarrassed having asked for it. I think the writers' perceptions of me have changed. But I wouldn't be following my own advice if I had bartered a Sunday afternoon, a 40-mile round trip, and hard-won expertise for "Thank you, you're very generous" and "Isn't she a nice girl." I want to say, "I AM a nice girl. But I'm 51 and if you've noticed that I'm on the skinny side these days, it's not because I'm dieting."

As small as this incident is, as small as I feel, this was a victory in the battle for writers to get paid.
Jun 27
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How I Changed My Luck Some More

So, last year I put some sample poems online at poemhunter.com, and recently a photographer, a stranger, found the poem called "Blue Chicory," and requested permission to reprint it on her blog, alongside her artistic photo of a blue chicory blossom. And I said yes of course yes.

Without the Net, Ms. Dyer would never have read the poem. Without poemhunter.com it wouldn't have been posted. With poemhunter.com the author was easily traceable so that permission could be requested and granted.

Put a few of your own favorite poems on poemhunter.com, preferably if they've already been published and rights have reverted to you. If unpublished, they count as published when you post them, so think twice. It's a good place to post poems YOU love that no editor seems to like. Yes, a lot of stuff on poemhunter.com is dross, but certainly not yours, and you open up a chance for good things to happen. Even a small good thing. Every little bit builds confidence.
Jun 27
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How I Changed My Luck

After about 35 years spent alone writing, I needed a change. I'm ashamed to say I had some mummified notions, 20 or 30 years old: Real writers work solo, right? Writers' groups are for old ladies who look and smell like roses, right? (To be honest, I did meet once with a group just like that, but I let it prejudice me.) And with my schooling, what did I have left to learn?

So in the past 6 months I've become a member of the St. Louis Writers Guild, the St. Louis Poetry Center, the St. Louis Publishers Association, the Loosely Identified women's poetry group, and the Missouri Writers Guild.

Fortunately all the above groups are vibrant, active, well-established (90+ years for the St. Louis Writers' Guild; 25+ years for Loosely Identified) and run a tight ship, so I'm getting suggestions for my work, making friends, seeing awesome work in progress, getting invitations to parties and to submit manuscripts -- I had 3 poems taken that way -- easy! -- Also, tipoffs about hot writer websites (see the links at left) and good blogs, forums, seminars, and chances to do more and do it better. My whole mood has changed. And because of that, I've tried other positive things. How glad I am that I got into the car and joined the living!
Jun 27
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Advice to a Co-Worker Leaving Her Job to Enter an MFA Program

  • Get to know everyone.
  • Attend every literary event that you can.
  • Keep a journal.
  • When you’re suffering, telephone (don’t E-mail) a fellow student.
  • Your mistakes are okay.
  • Understand that some of your fellow students applied to the MFA program and didn’t get in, so they are getting a regular M.A., and boy are they jealous of you.
  • If you teach freshman composition, know that some of your students cannot be saved.
  • Sleep on it before submitting it to workshop.
  • Love affairs that start in the first weeks of grad school will end badly.
  • Get a bicycle.
  • Make yourself go to your writing professor’s office during office hours, just to chat.
  • If you need money, get a part-time job no matter what your contract with the college says.
  • Don't bug famous writers to help you, because they won't.
  • It's not an illusion: Male and female writers are not treated the same.
  • You'll get discouraged sometimes, but don’t let anybody stop you.
Jun 27
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Not Everything is a Joke

You know the mock air violin that smart alecks "play" when somebody's telling their troubles. Someone who'd just learned to do that, a big joker, asked me if I'd ever seen it, and demonstrated, and I said, "I find that sickening, vicious and cruel. Here somebody is not joking for once, is speaking in earnest, and you are making fun of their honest feelings. You are shaming people for speaking their truth."

Sitcoms and standup have set the tone for our language and behavior, and writers increasingly write that way. I have a cookbook whose hip young authors riddled the text with cutesy, unfunny jokes, and I wonder why. If someone speaks in earnest, with passion, we say: "Tell us what you REALLY think!" If someone complains, we play the air violin or say, "Do you want cheese with that whine?" A harsh story or philosophizing makes us say, "that's heavy" or "that's pretty dark" and we do our best to restore a light and carefree atmosphere as if the world and Disney World were one and the same. We joke, tell jokes, refer to jokes. We all know chronic jokers. I have learned smart-aleck replies to earnest inquiries as simple as, "What time is it?" Above all we want to be liked. Laughter brings us together, but it can also keep us apart. Not everything is a joke.

Surprisingly, our comedians do not tell jokes. We are the ones who tell jokes. They tell truths: about money, sex, relationships, politics. Our poets do that also. The U.S. found the perfect poet in Billy Collins, a hybrid poet/comedian who is a product of our time.
Jun 21
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I Could Vacation on This Money, Or I Could Print a Book

I signed the contract, wrote the check, and mailed it at the P.O. today. Asked the clerk for a pretty stamp. For good luck. I'm in high-risk territory here. If I do this wrong, if I'm deceiving myself. . . But if I do this right . . .

This is a self-publishing project: an illustrated little inspirational book for women. The fantastic drawings by Sheila Kennedy will make the book of work of art. This project has long roots. At a printery I'd seen adorable little books, like children's books, except they were for adults; loved the shape and size. Then in my files I found the list, 31 lines, that would become the text. I'd written it to restore myself after a rough patch. Re-reading it I was surprised it was still "alive." I thought, this could help somebody else. My Inner Critic had a field day:

*who will read this? *you, writing inspirational stuff? *you want to kill your reputation this will do it! *you really want to embarrass yourself! *it will cost seeerious money! *where will you find an illustrator? *what qualifies you to try to inspire people? *why isn't it a book of poems? *you are crazy!

But I shut up my Critic (he looks and sounds like Christopher Hitchens). It wasn't easy. It was like the Puritans in old Plimoth: If somebody in town went nuts or on a bender, they dragged him to his house, tossed him in and then nailed the door shut, to let him cool off. Just in the last two weeks I first spoke of the idea to other writers. I explained the concept or brought them the text, nervously asking, am I crazy?

Finding the illustrator was easy; I was led to her. I didn't seek design and printing estimates; knowing its likely price and what I wanted, I asked for it and signed. My publishing experience, all of it, came in very handy. (I'm the kind who'll park the car in the first empty space and walk, rather than keep circling to find one closer to the entrance.) And, gritting my teeth, sent the check today.

Several streams had run together: the business course that said manifesting "crazy" ideas was the sanest thing to do. My editing of faith-based book manuscripts, which I found strangely moving although I am not religious. Karmic issues I won't go into. The "now or never" bit. The "leap and the net will appear"/"walk by faith, not by sight" bit. (Did it before, risking much more than I am now.) The "better to regret what you did do than what you didn't do." The "dare you dare you, double-dog dare you." The "I could vacation on this money or I could make this book. I'll make the book."

Jun 18
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When Is It Right to Give Someone Your Book?

In the interest of mental health and wanting to be a class act, I ask, "When is it right to give someone your book?" Some provisional answers, from experience:

1. Give it when the recipient will care about it. You have friends who don't care a fig about your poetry. Do not attend their birthday parties and, with shining eyes, gift them with your poetry book.

2. Do not give it as a prize or premium, or instead of compensation for services, or as a thank-you, unless you are thanking the recipient for somehow helping in the book's creation or promotion. Do not withhold the book from anyone who helped.

3. Do not give your book as a substitute for a real gift, or as an act of charity unless the charity solicits it.

4. Do not try to impress a non-writing romantic interest, or his or her parents, by giving your book. If you are female they will say behind your back that you are siddity (stuck-up, think you are too good for them); if you are male they will say the writer thing is okay but he'll never make any money with it.

5. Yes, give your book in exchange for another writer's book.

6. Give it to a potential reviewer, but when no review appears, don't pin her to the wall and demand to know what happened.

6.5. Don't give it to people you ignore except when you want their attention for your book.

7. Don't give it unless you give it with all your heart. If you'd really like money for it, tell them you'll sell it to them for cost. Really. Or the transaction will embitter you.

8. Don't give it to someone who really should buy it, such as a stranger chatting you up at a book signing.

9. Give it to a famous writer if you like, but do not expect it to be read, because he or she gets handed books all the time, and do not expect thanks. Hope only that he or she glances at it and says, "Doesn't look bad," or "That'd be nice to read if I wasn't so busy writing."

10. Give it to someone who will share the joy of it with you.