Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Saving Poetry One Drink at a Time


by Sandra Marchetti 

It’s 10 pm on a weeknight and my husband and I are arguing on Aisle 5 of the local Jewel-Osco. Will it be the San Pellegrino Limonata or the Italian grapefruit soda? We lost our chance to buy the right mixer hours ago. He just wants a drink, and I’m fueling my perfectionism in trying to prove him wrong. I gaze into the fluorescent lights and wonder, what the hell are we still doing here?

I mentioned to my husband Scott the day before that my press, Sundress Publications, asked me to create a signature cocktail to pair with my forthcoming book of poems, Confluence. The brilliant force behind Sundress, Erin Elizabeth Smith, thought a book of cocktail recipes might be a fun giveaway for the upcoming AWP Conference. I was excited to add to the volume, as Confluence will make its debut at the convention. Scott—a veteran of the restaurant industry who for years ordered liquor and bartended at hotels—was instantly smitten with the idea. We considered one of my favorite cocktails, the Paloma, sometimes made with Squirt or real grapefruit juice, and tequila. It seemed close to my ideal, but this drink was already established. Was it possible to create a more inventive cocktail? Considering the title, Confluence, I knew my drink needed to blend ingredients from two different landscapes. We brainstormed a bit more, but as we talked I feared Scott’s sprawling creativity and passion for the project might get in the way of my tight timeline.

While Scott was at work the next day, with the aid of a little Internet research, I wrote up an initial recipe for the “Confluence Pamplemousse” and sent it to Sundress. Feeling pretty proud of myself, I casually mentioned over dinner I had created the drink. A wave of disappointment crossed Scott’s face. He calmly asked me to tell him about my creation, but as I described it, he grew increasingly grave. The drink called for equal parts (one ¼ cup each) French pink lemonade (like Lorina), mezcal, fresh grapefruit juice, and some optional honey, all to be served in a salt rimmed glass. Even though I hadn’t tried to make it, I noted that the soda should be placed in the cocktail shaker with the rest of the ingredients and the whole concoction poured over ice. I knew from his eyes that I had gone too far. He looked at me as if I had run over his childhood pet.

 We hastily paid the check, then Scott ushered me to the Whole Foods next door to buy the ingredients and iron out the recipe once and for all. My gentle husband could clearly sense I was out of my depths on this one. This was his crucible. We rushed toward to the tiniest liquor section on record. Searching the three miniature shelves frantically, we could not find any mezcal. Our options were PatrĂ³n Silver or some pricey organic reposado. I balked. “It has to be mezcal!” He said, “You haven’t even tasted it yet! The reposado will be smoother and maybe a bit sweeter! It might help this drink.” While lugging our splurge to the checkout, along with a bag of grapefruits, we scanned the shelves for the French lemonade. The only available item was Italian soda, in grapefruit or blood orange. Again, I hesitated. “It must be French! The melding of two landscapes is important to my book! The French language is a part of my poems!”  

I insisted we press on to yet another grocery store that might have my lemonade. By 10:30, we found ourselves glazed over in Aisle 5. I still couldn’t find the Lorina. Scott halfheartedly clutched a package of San Pellegrino Limonata. “It’s still not French,” I grumbled. My sweet husband finally convinced me it was our only shot, as we were still hell-bent on trying out the drink that night. He bought the cans and I sighed my way out to the car.  

Scott was itching to put on an apron and play “America’s Test Kitchen” once we arrived home. We tried my original recipe first. Not surprisingly, the cocktail shaker nearly blew open with the soda inside and the drink was flat once poured. Scott then experimented with less tequila—a quarter of a cup is quite a bit more than a shot—but the drink seemed weak and watery. I tested one without honey, which quickly called to our attention that the sweetener was not an optional ingredient. It needed to be there—two heaping teaspoonfuls. I was also instructed, on nearly every attempt, to “shake more vigorously!” Scott then wanted to add an orange, but I staved off his curiosity as we were approaching 1 a.m. in a kitchen full of pulp and sticky glasses.

Finally, he mixed what we hoped would be the last tester and poured the soda on top. It proved delicious. We’d each had a couple of the off-kilter versions, were rosy cheeked, and no longer antagonistic. I watched him slice the grapefruit for the garnish, marveling at the expert movements of his hands. As I sucked on the rind and licked the side of the glass where grapefruit juice mingled with kosher salt, I noticed the drink’s sweet smokiness—ripe and full of primal flavors. I sang the theme from “An American in Paris,” except a mariachi band was playing in the background. Scott told me the reposado is aged in old oak bourbon barrels, which allows for this mellow, controlled burn in the mouth. I found out later on that the Limonata is actually better than Lorina—it adds a zippy crispness. I also like mine with an extra salty rim, paired with pork tacos or just a sunny afternoon and a lawn chair.

I sent the improved recipe to Erin the next day. I wasn’t vindicated, but I was much more confident about the drink. We had tried it, and it was so good. Scott’s modifications were a touch of genius. Like my book, the recipe went through many versions, but with the help of experienced advisors, I found my epiphany. The collection reflects some of my own youthful stubbornness, as does the cocktail. Confluence, and the Confluence Pamplemousse, is a mingling of warm and cool settings, hope and longing. It’s a love story set in the landscape. I love it. In fact, I think I’m going to sip one right now. You should too.


Confluence Pamplemousse
Ingredients
¼ cup fresh grapefruit juice
¼ cup mezcal or reposado (try Olmeca Altos Reposado)
¼ cup San Pellegrino Limonata (or other sparkling lemonade)
2 teaspoons honey
Grapefruit wedge
Kosher salt

Directions
Rub the side of a stemless wine glass with grapefruit wedge, dip glass in kosher salt. Combine grapefruit juice, liquor, and honey over ice in cocktail shaker. Pour into glass, finish with lemonade, stir, and garnish with grapefruit wedge.

*****

Bio:

Sandra Marchetti is the author of Confluence, a debut full-length collection of poetry from Sundress Publications. Eating Dog Press also published an illustrated edition of her essays and poetry, A Detail in the Landscape, and her first volume, The Canopy, won Midwest Writing Center's Mississippi Valley Chapbook Contest. Sandy won Second Prize in Prick of the Spindle's 2014 Poetry Open and was a finalist for Gulf Coast’s Poetry Prize. Her poetry and prose appears in The Journal, Subtropics, The Hollins Critic, Sugar House Review, Mid-American Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, Green Mountains Review, South Dakota Review, Appalachian Heritage, Southwest Review, Phoebe, and elsewhere. Sandy is a teacher and freelance manuscript editor who lives and writes outside of Chicago.



Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"Let the Characters Lead": An Interview with Novelist S.M. Hulse on Black River


By Matthew McEver

Inspired by a Montana prison riot in the 1950s, S.M. Hulse’s debut novel, Black River, belongs alongside the work of Annie Proulx and Ron Hansen, situated among the new literature of the American West. Hulse breaks down nostalgia, offsetting pastoral landscapes against rugged but broken people. Her protagonist, Wes Carver, is a former corrections officer who was held hostage, tortured and maimed in a prison riot twenty years ago. Now, after living in Spokane all this time, Wes returns to Montana, days following his wife’s death, in order to attend the parole hearing for the inmate who held him hostage, an inmate who has supposedly “found God.”

Note: A link to an excerpt from the novel can be found following the interview.



Black River began as your MFA thesis at the University of Oregon. Tell us how things evolved from there. 

Yes, I went to the University of Oregon knowing I wanted to write a novel for my MFA thesis, and I had a sense of the characters and story already. I completed a first draft of Black River by the end of my third and final year in the program, and then I headed to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a one-year post-graduate fiction fellowship. In Madison, I revised the manuscript, cutting about 25,000 words in the process, and showed it to a few agents who had approached me after reading my short stories in literary journals. Several offered to represent me, and after signing with one of them, I did another revision and cut another 18,000 words. At that point, my agent sent the manuscript out to about 10 editors, and it sold to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in June 2013, shortly after the end of my fellowship.


Despite being the literature of Willa Cather and Annie Proulx, the Literature of the American West is often considered the domain of male authors. What do you have to say about that, and what is it about this kind of fiction that drew you in?

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about gender when I write—Black River has a male protagonist, the novel I’m working on now has a female protagonist, and my short stories are fairly evenly split between the two—and I’m a bit wary of being defined too strongly as a woman Western writer, simply because the designation seems to suggest that women Western writers are somehow different from “regular” Western writers. I think it’s important that authors (Western and otherwise) tell as many stories as possible, from as many perspectives as possible.

As far as what drew me to Western fiction, I don’t think I necessarily set out to write a “Western” novel. I’ve lived in the American West nearly all my life, so I’m simply writing about the people and places I know best. That said, I’m fascinated by the Western mythology as it exists in the American mind, and I’m interested in exploring how that intersects and collides with the realities of the modern West.


Black River is Wes Carver’s story, no question. The wrinkle, of course, is that you occasionally fold in a chapter from Claire’s (the deceased wife’s) point-of-view. Was Claire’s angle on things a part of your drafts while you were at the University of Oregon? I can visualize MFA students debating whether or not to reveal the dead wife’s perspective. What convinced you that the reader needed to see and hear Claire’s experience?

I was about 100 pages into the first draft when I decided to add Claire’s voice to the novel. Wes, the protagonist, is an incredibly stoic person with a deep but rigid sense of right and wrong. Because he’s such a reserved character—often suppressing his emotions even from himself—I realized that it could be difficult for readers to understand him well enough to appreciate his motives. Wes was also so estranged from his adult stepson, Dennis, that it was difficult to present Dennis as a complex character, because Wes tended to see only his bad traits. Claire, though she certainly had flaws of her own, loved both Wes and Dennis deeply, and through her generally more generous perspective, the reader gained a broader understanding of both men.

I didn’t really take Black River to workshop while I was in my MFA program—I submitted an excerpt in the final quarter of my second year, when we were required to workshop part of our theses, but otherwise always submitted short stories—so I didn’t hear much discussion about the addition of Claire’s voice to the novel. I do know that I wasn’t sure about the decision in the beginning, but by the time I’d finished the first draft, it had become clear that Claire’s chapters helped structure the entire narrative.


Like Ron Hansen, you’ve written a Western that integrates faith, grace, redemption, suffering. How do you manage to tell this kind of story without being didactic?  

I love Ron Hansen’s work! I’m fascinated by literary fiction that addresses faith and the themes of grace and redemption that so often go along with it. For me, the key to addressing those kinds of themes in Black River was to let the characters lead. In the novel, Wes follows many of the “rules” of his religion—he attends church, says grace at meals, reads the Bible before bed—but he struggles to have genuine faith. He is eager for it, yearns for it, but it has eluded him all his life, and that elusiveness becomes even more agonizing when he learns that the man who tortured him during a prison riot years ago claims to have become a born-again Christian. Wes’s struggles with faith are central to the decisions he makes throughout the novel, and by focusing on that—why did Wes want so badly to truly believe, why wasn’t he able to do so, what would change in his life if he could—I was able to explore things like faith, forgiveness, and redemption in what I think was a realistic, organic way.

  
Lastly, you’ve mentioned that you like writing at night. How is that possible? Don’t you feel drained?

I’m definitely a night owl, so I’m amazed by all the writers out there who talk about getting up at four or five in the morning to write—it takes me at least an hour to even be able to speak in coherent sentences, let alone write them. I think I like writing late at night because when it’s dark and quiet, I find it easier to immerse myself in the fictional world of whatever project I’m working on. Probably 85% of Black River was written between 11:00 pm and 3:00 am. That said, it’s certainly true that we don’t always get to write at the times we’d prefer to, so I’m trying to become more flexible in my writing habits.

*****

BIO
Matthew McEver holds the MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Currently, he is a Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of North Georgia.

*****

MORE INFORMATION

To buy Black River on Amazon or Indiebound
More information about S.M. Hulse, including upcoming events
Excerpt from Black River in TriQuarterly
Review in the Washington Post

Monday, January 26, 2015

Cheryl Somers Aubin: 12 Tips for Submitting Your Work to Lit Journals

12 Tips for Submitting Your Work to Literary Journals
A Co-editor’s Perspective  

By Cheryl Somers Aubin
  

As a writer, I have submitted my fair share of essays and fiction pieces to literary journals.  Now that I am the nonfiction co-editor of a literary journal, I wanted to share a few tips with my fellow writers from the perspective of an editor:

1.  
Submit early:  These are the essays that stay at the top of my mind and I end up comparing all future submissions to them.  Some essays are immediately accepted (before they get scooped up by another journal) leaving fewer openings for those last minute submissions.

2.
Edit your piece:  Some of the pieces I look at would have been wonderful with some editing.  Check the overall piece, then check every line and every sentence.  Are there places you need to cut?  To add?  Be sure you take this important step before submitting.

3.
Proof your piece:  And then look it over again, then have someone else look it over. When there are many submissions it is easy to put aside those with misspellings and poor grammar.

4.
Be creative:  Being creative can set you apart (a one sentence piece was accepted for our journal) but don't write an entire essay about the stuff underneath your fingernails.  Be creative but not gross.

5.
Write clearly: Don’t make me work really hard to understand your piece.  You can use beautiful language and creative styles – but don’t have me shaking my head wondering what the heck the piece is really about.

6.
Identify people:  If you must not identify a person in your piece, please think of a way to write about them (the husband, the neighbor) instead of using just letters.  One letter to identify a single person is okay if you have to, but more than one letter and readers get confused.  (X gave her car keys to Y which made W get mad and storm off to tell Z...)???

7.
Submit once: Submit the very best version of your piece only once.  A few writers submitted a piece then resubmitted the same one with some corrections -- but I have already formed an opinion about the piece and the edits/corrections are not significant enough to change my mind.

8.
Follow guidelines: Pay close attention to what the journal wants. Name on every page or not at all?  Times New Roman or Courier font?  Also, how do they define “previously published work?”  Is it work that has appeared in a print publication or online anywhere at any time (including your own blog)?  Be sure to follow the rules they have for submissions.

9.
Submit to multiple journals: If the journals allow it, be sure to submit your piece to multiple journals. Most  journals use Submittable.  It can take months to hear back, so it is to your advantage to have your piece out for consideration to several journals at the same time. Be sure,  however, to notify the other journals immediately if your piece gets accepted.

10.
It’s a process:  Different journals work different ways, but most of them have several readers for each genre. I went to bat with the executive editor about several pieces that I thought deserved to be included in our journal. I volunteer to do this because I love to see the work of so many talented writers and I also know what it is like to be the writer behind the submission.  In the end, while the co-editors make their recommendations, the Executive Editor of the Journal has the final say.

11.
If you do get rejected: Pay close attention to what the rejection note says. Many journals are now sending out several levels of rejections.  If your e-mails says, “thanks but we are not able to use it,” you might need to take another look at your piece to make sure it is as perfect as can be.  On the other hand, if you get a response such as, “It’s a lovely, poignant piece and received many favorable comments, but the editorial board did not select it for publication in the upcoming issue. However, we sincerely hope you will consider submitting again to future volumes.”  This is a very positive rejection and you should consider submitting another piece to this journal.

12.
Do not despair:  Submitting your work and being rejected is just part of the life of a writer trying to get published.  Some of the pieces that were not going to be accepted for our journal were accepted elsewhere and withdrawn by the author.  So, stay positive, knowing that good work often finds a home.   

*****

BIO: Cheryl Somers Aubin has been writing and publishing for 25 years, and her work has appeared in The Washington PostBoston Globe, Foundation Magazine, and other newspapers, magazines, and online journals. She has an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Cheryl teaches memoir writing and is a featured speaker at book festivals, writing conferences, and workshops. She is a nonfiction co-editor for a literary journal. Her book, The Survivor Tree: Inspired by a True Story, is available at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum and online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. 

For more information:  
She can be reached at aubin.mail@cox.net



Friday, January 16, 2015

Writing & Social Media

Writers, “social media” is not a dirty word!  (I know, it’s actually two words.)  Like it or not, learning to navigate the shoals of shameless self-promotion is part of our JOB these days, whether it’s helping to bring attention to a worthy literary journal that has published our work or trying to move the merch (yes, your beloved book is a PRODUCT).

Anyway, lecture over.  If you’re interested in learning more, you might like to watch this thoughtful, 30-minute panel on writing and social media that I moderated while at the recent Converse MFA residency.  It includes some good tips and some scary facts (how many Twitter followers are online journalists expected to have, minimum??). Thanks to Betsy Teter and Hub City Books for inviting me to participate.  If you’re in Spartanburg, be sure to stop by the bookstore to see what they’ve got on their excellently curated shelves.  And if you’re not headed to Spartanburg, check out the wonderful books the press has published and is releasing soon, including these two by Converse faculty members…they can be mailed right to you!

Here’s the YouTube link to the panel discussion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rqai3YlHsaA


Hopefully this embed will also work…. (That's my boot on the right; I do show up in full eventually!)


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Wow!

Nothing like some hometown attention from the press, especially when “press” means The Washington Post and the journalist in question is the highly admired book critic, Ron Charles.  Here’s the Post’s blog piece about my book award.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Converse Low-Res MFA Info Session: Online & In-Person Options

Speaking of the Converse low-res MFA, where I just was for 10 days…this bit of news from our director, poet Rick Mulkey:

MFA Information Session for Prospective Students

The Converse College Low Residency MFA program will offer an information session on Thursday, January 29 from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. in the Ezell Conference Room 101on the Converse College campus. 

Those individuals living outside of the region who are interested in learning more about our program may participate through Google Chat. 

The session will provide interested writers information on South Carolina's only low residency MFA program in creative writing. The Converse College Low Residency MFA offers students opportunities to focus in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, plus opportunities to pursue internships in publishing and editing through our C. Michael Curtis Publishing Fellowship at Hub City Press. 

In addition, Converse MFA students may participate in editing opportunities with the program's national online literary magazine South 85 Journal, and develop teaching experience with our online and traditional classroom Teaching Assistant positions. 

Information on the application process, the recent outcomes and publishing successes of our graduates, and an opportunity to speak with the MFA program director, Rick Mulkey, and several current MFA students will take place during the session. Contact Rick Mulkey at the following if you have questions about the session or about how to participate in the session online: <rick.mulkey@converse.edu> or <paula.cash@converse.edu>.


For detailed program information: www.converse.edu/mfa

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

"West of Sunset": Fitzgerald in Hollywood

How did I not know about this book until now, West of Sunset, by Stewart O’Nan, that imagines F. Scott Fitzgerald’s days in Hollywood?  Like, could a book be more perfectly written FOR ME?  Fitzgerald’s so-poignant Pat Hobby Stories, about an old, has-been hack of a screenwriter, has been on my Favorite Books Bookshelf for ages, and I’m pretty sure this one will never get squeezed off for lack of room.  These stories make my heart ache.

Best news of all:  Stewart O’Nan will be reading from the book on Wednesday, January 14, at 7 PM at Politics & Prose.  I will see you there!  (Unless the predicted snow/sleet/apocalyptic event actually happens as described.)  More info here.

Here’s Maureen Corrigan’s review from the Washington Post and an excerpt:

What interests him about Fitzgerald’s exile in Hollywood is not so much the glitter (although Humphrey Bogart, Marlene Dietrich and other stars make appearances), nor his love affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham (whose blond good looks evoked the young Zelda), but rather Fitzgerald’s anxious commitment to his work as a screenwriter. Most of the movies Fitzgerald was assigned to were dreck (although there was a short stint on “Gone with the Wind”). Nevertheless, sitting down every day in his office or the various furnished cottages and apartments he rented in and around Hollywood, Fitzgerald fueled himself with cigarettes and Cokes (or, frequently, something more potent) as he labored to make flimsy scripts better. Fitzgerald was always a worrier, relentlessly tinkering with “The Great Gatsby” and “Tender Is the Night,” even after the publication of those novels. It’s that F. Scott Fitzgerald — the worn-out yet relentless craftsman — whom O’Nan compassionately evokes in “West of Sunset.” 

Work-in-Progress

DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.