Friday, March 30, 2007

Not Lost in Translation

I have exactly one experience of translating literature, a required class in translation, taken when I was getting my MFA at American University. What I remember from that one class: the student who told me to chose something short was right on. I quickly found that having someone else’s words there in front of you already doesn’t make anything easier. I used the work of an obscure female, South American poet whose name and country escape me, and I spent a lot of time flipping through a Spanish-English dictionary and channeling distant memories of high school Spanish. (Yes, kids, this is how we did things before the Internet.) Of course, getting the meaning right is only the beginning of the process, because then the words also have to sound good. Duh.

It was hard and tedious work that I wasn’t very good at; I’m sure I totally destroyed this poor woman’s poems.

So it’s no wonder I’m in awe of my friend C.M. Mayo, who can write AND translate AND is an unwavering advocate of Mexican literature. I’m pleased to present an excerpt from her Translator’s Notes to Carne Verde, Piel Negra / An Avocado from Michoacan, a new chapbook, published by Tameme, written by Agustin Cadena.

"On process: Translating this story was a delicious pleasure. Cadena is an accomplished poet, and this shows in his use of vivid imagery and elegant pacing. And, as all good storytellers, he has a big heart that sees clearly into other hearts. How did I proceed? As they say about sausages, loaves of bread—and avocados—the best way to work through it is a slice at a time. I made a photocopy of the original, and then cut that copy into paragraph-sized bits. I taped each to the top of a sheet of paper, leaving a large blank area for my draft. The work went quickly. First I penciled in what came to mind. I skipped ahead, backtracked; scribbled here then there. I circled words I wanted to look up in a dictionary and/or thesaurus. Then, I went and looked them up. Another draft. Finally, I typed it up; then, gave it a polish, then, retyped. I showed it to my secret weapon: my husband, who is Mexican. I gave it all another polish. Finally, I had a version we were both happy with. It was copyedited by translator Katherine Silver. It was proofread by both myself and the author. And proofread again. There is always something to fix. A translation, like writing itself, is a potentially endless process. At some point, one has to say, pencils down (and fingers crossed)."

C.M. Mayo is the author of the widely-lauded travel memoir, Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico, and Sky Over El Nido, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction.

And she’s the founding editor of Tameme, the bilingual Spanish/English) chapbook press, Mayo is also a translator of contemporary Mexican poetry and fiction. Her anthology of Mexican fiction in translation, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, was published by Whereabouts Press in March 2006.

Check out her blog, Madame Mayo!

For more information about poet and writer Agustin Cadena, go here. To be really impressive and read his blog in Spanish, go here.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Poetry at Your Doorstep

April is National Poetry Month. (As if the poets would let us forget that for a moment; where is Fiction Month, I ask you? Yes, yes, every month is "Fiction Month"....)

If you'd like to increase your poetry intake, consider subscribing to Knopf's "poem a day" series. A poem will lyrically wend its way into your email inbox each day in April.

The bad news: all the featured poets are published by Knopf.

The good news: they publish some great poets, including one of my faves, Mark Strand.

For more information, go here.

If you're willing to make a stronger commitment and don't want to limit yourself to one month, try The Writer's Almanac, which delivers a poem every day all year long as well as historical facts about writers (and other writer-ish people) that you can drop into conversation until everyone is irritated with you (i.e. today is the birthday Eric Idle, one of the founders of Monty Python). Warning: Garrison Keillor is involved.

Poetry + Dinner = An Artful Evening

I desperately wish I were going to be in New York City (or Minneapolis) to check this out. Or that the restaurants here in the DC area were so artful....

In honor of National Poetry Month, Alimentum, a lovely literary journal specializing in writing about food, has organized a project starting the second week of April, where restaurant goers receive a poem with their menu (a "menupoem"). Organized and edited by Esther Cohen, participating restaurants include the following:

Anodyne Café, 4301 Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55409 612 824-4300
Biscuit BBQ, 230 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215 718 399-2161
Blue Hill, 75 Washington Place, New York, NY 10011 212 539-1776
Colors, 417 Lafayette, New York, NY 10003 212 777-8443
Cornelia Street Café, 29 Cornelia Street, New York, NY 10014 212 989-9319
Cupcake Café, 522 9th Avenue, New York, NY 10018 212 465-1530
Cupcake Café at Books of Wonder, 18 West 18th Street, New York, NY 212 465-1530
‘ino, 21 Bedford Street, New York, NY 10014 212 989-5769
‘inoteca, 98 Rivington Street, New York, NY 10002 212 614-0473
Lupa, 170 Thompson Street, New York, NY 10012 212 982-5089
Riverdale Garden, 4576 Manhattan College Parkway, Bronx, NY 10471 718 624-4075
Smooch, 264 Carlton, Brooklyn, NY 11205 718 624-4075
Tagine Dining Gallery, 537 Ninth Avenue, New York, NY 10018 212 564-7292

Check the website for more information and updates to the list of participating restaurants. And go ahead, order know you want to!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Out of Submission Hell

Submitting stories for publication is not my idea of fun...though getting them published is another story. Sadly, it seems one will not happen with the other, so every couple months or so I gather up my stories that need a home and launch a well-planned attack on literary journals I read and admire, hoping to make the elusive match. Doing the research--who's reading at the moment, length limits (the bane of my existence as a long short story writer), new editor's name, address, etc. etc. etc. into mindless aggravation--has been significantly easier since I discovered the online site Duotrope. It's a database of more than 1650 journals, updated daily, with submission guidelines and websites all neatly and efficiently organized. Make life a tiny bit easier on yourself and check them out.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

What More to Know about Titles?

Another brilliant piece about titles on M.J. Rose's excellent blog. She and her guest bloggers are so smart about marketing books that I want to buy her a drink and listen to her talk until the bar closes down and then drive her home so she can talk some more.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Learning New Tricks, II

I often teach workshops at the Johns Hopkins Master's Program in Writing in Washington, DC, so I'm pleased to announce that the program is once again offering its popular "Conference on Craft." Exciting enough as is...but this conference is in Florence, Italy.

Alas, no, I'm not going. That's quite okay--I prefer to stay home and sweat through the famous 3H DC summers (3H = hot + humid + hazy).

Among the people who do get to go and teach are fiction writer Alice McDermott (who taught my workshop when I was a fellow at the Sewanee Writers' Conference; talk about a smart teacher and perceptive reader of work) and poet Dave Smith.

Go here for more information. And please send me a postcard!

Learning New Tricks, I

Beginning in April, I will be teaching an advanced novels-in-progress class at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland. I enjoy this class because participants are to have already written at least 50 pages, so we get to wrestle with some really meaty issues that face writers in the middle of the process. (This class isn't called "The Long Haul" for nothing!)

Here's the class description:

The Long Haul: A Workshop for Novels-in-Progress
Writing a novel is like running a marathon: challenging, lonely, frustrating, exhilarating, and a hundred other emotions. How to keep going through all the distractions and difficulties? How to keep focused on your vision? How to finish the darn thing!? This workshop will explore the “big picture” matters of pacing, structure, tone, and plot; seek possible solutions to individual problems participants face in their manuscripts; and, above all, offer encouragement for getting through the inevitable rough patches. We will discuss additional aspects of craft as they arise in participant manuscripts. The final session will cover information about submitting your work for publication. IMPORTANT: This workshop is designed for writers who have already made significant progress on their books (i.e. at least 50 pages); this is not an appropriate class if you are starting a book right now. Writers with complete first drafts are welcome as are those who are still working through their first draft. Please bring to the first class a one-paragraph description of your novel to read out loud. Each writer will share up to 25 double-spaced (12 pt font) pages of work with the workshop; you are encouraged to bring 15 copies to distribute at the first meeting.

For more information, or to register, please contact The Writer's Center.

Friday, March 23, 2007

On Titles

I consider myself terrible at titles. For a long time, it seemed all my short stories started with the word "what": What We All Want, What Girls Want, What I Know about David, What It Comes To, What Happened to Us. (Actually, a number of my story titles begin with W: When You Want to Feel Suddenly Single, Working Relationship, Where Your Life Begins. This probably means something....) I hated those "what" titles because they seemed very MFAish, yet I couldn't think of anything better.

So I was very excited at the idea that this blog feels perfectly titled: Work in Progress (note the W; and note that as mentioned previously, it was actually my friend Denise who came up with this title). I thought Work in Progress would also make a great, easily remembered blog url. Little did I know that some guy named Scott already took this name, and despite the fact that apparently he hasn't posted anything since 2003, he is clinging to it. Other variations were also taken. Hence: workinprogressinprogress. That one was available! I try to think of that second "in progress" as a lovely little echo. But also, it just feeds my paranoia that I'm terrible at titles.

Poets are usually very good at titles; most of the ones I've met have a list of titles that are waiting for poems. (Probably none of them begin with "what.")

And here's an excellent piece about what makes a good title. No mention of the word "what."

Thursday, March 22, 2007


I've recently taught a workshop about beginnings at a wonderful writing conference, Writers at the Beach: Pure Sea Glass and one of the things I suggested to the participants was to keep a journal of opening lines. So, every day before I write, I come up with a few quick sentences that could start a novel or short story. The joy is that I can go anywhere with this because I don't have to finish the story (though every now and then I come up with something I'm interested in). And there's no revising...just write from the gut.

I also feel that this practice has sharpened my writing and that I'm getting to the point more quickly, especially in the beginning of my chapters and scenes.

I believe I first read about this idea in Writing Down the Bones, the classic writing book.

Here's one of my beginnings; I wouldn't usually write about something like this, but I was having fun: It was the way the wind was so relentless. Every day. No one had seen anything like it, not even the old-timers who said they had seen everything. Roofs were in danger, trees were cracking, and the wild roaring was enough to send anyone over the edge. So the village decided a sacrifice was needed.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Work In Progress

Welcome to my new blog, a Work in Progress, which is, indeed, a work in progress. I'm a novelist and short story writer (perhaps I'll eventually figure out how to post images of my book covers; perhaps not as I'm not very technology-minded), and I'm currently working on a third book. Writing is probably not as hard as digging ditches, though it can seem as endless. My hope with this blog is to explore what it means to have a work in progress: how to keep progressing, when to take a break, what to do to stave off the craziness...the whole ball of wax. I'll discuss my own work and creative process as well as invite others to share their thoughts about what they're working on.

We're not limited to writing here, though that is one of my primary interests. But I chose the title (thanks for the suggestion, Denise!) for its literal and metaphorical possibilibities. In the end, we're all pretty much a work in progress, right?


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