Monday, January 27, 2014

Registration Now Open for DC's Split This Rock Poetry Festival

I’m pleased to help spread the word about this unique and amazing DC-based festival, Split This Rock, which will take place in DC March 27-30, 2014:

Split This Rock Poetry Festival is DC's premiere poetry event and the only festival of its kind the country, highlighting poets working at the intersection of the imagination and social change.
The festival features readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, open mics, activism -- opportunities for participants to speak out for justice, build connection and community, and celebrate the many ways poetry can act as an agent for social change.  
Poets to be featured at the festival are among the most significant and artistically vibrant writing and performing today: Sheila Black, Franny Choi, Eduardo C. Corral, Gayle Danley, Natalie Diaz, Joy Harjo, Maria Melendez Kelson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Dunya Mikhail, Shailja Patel, Wang Ping, Claudia Rankine, Tim Seibles, Myra Sklarew, Danez Smith, and Anne Waldman.

Registration rates:
Early-bird: $85
After 2/1/13: $120
Student: $45
Scholarships and group rates are available.

The festival will take place at venues throughout the Farragut Square neighborhood, with featured readings in the Grosvenor Auditorium of the National Geographic headquarters and panels and workshops at the Sumner School, the Wilderness Society, the Human Rights Campaign, and the AFL-CIO.

Major partners are Busboys and Poets, the Institute for Policy Studies, and Teaching for Change.

For registration and more information:

Split This Rock calls poets to the center of public life and fosters a national network of socially engaged poets. Its programs integrate poetry into public life and support the poets of all ages who write and perform this essential work. It has been chosen as "one of the best" community-based charities in the DC area by the Catalogue for Philanthropy.

Split This Rock Poetry Festival is made possible in part by the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Open Society, Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz, and Nathan Cummings Foundations. Festival co-sponsors include the Human Rights Campaign, the Jimenez Porter Writers House of the University of Maryland, Letras Latinas, and the Wilderness Society.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

10 Classic Works You MUST Read (IMHO)

Okay, last week was true confessions for me: the Important Works I had not read that I should read. (In case you’re wondering, both The Road and Beloved have many vocal fans…okay, Faulkner and Shakespeare, too. In fact, someone spoke up about each of my neglected books, adding to my guilt.)

To show that I’m not a dolt, here is my list of classic books that I have read that I feel immense passion for, that affected me deeply and profoundly, that I can’t imagine my life being the same without.  All in my humble opinion, of course.  And I think I’ll stick to pre-WWIish or so, though I may fudge a little bit.

1.  Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I had purposefully skipped this one during college/grad school, afraid of TMI about whales, and yet that’s one of the many things I loved most the summer I spent reading it, whales and obsession and the post-modern tricks that were so post-modern that Melville used them even before modernity. One of the greatest books, ever.  There’s probably a reason that this book came to mind first.

2.  “The Wasteland” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot. Yes, I’m already breaking my pre-WWI rule—even though Eliot said, “It's not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them.” I read “The Wasteland,” unsupervised, in a terrible American lit high school class where the teacher gave us a list of Great Writers and we picked through them independently through the semester while he read magazines at his desk, and I had no idea what was going on here, but I thought it was something important.  When I got to college, I saw how right I was.  I have a recording of Eliot reading “The Wasteland” that I often listen to when I fall asleep, and I feel that the words are imprinted on my soul. (Yes, yes, some people call this recording “melodramatic,” but I happen to love it.)  Okay, throw in “The Hollow Men,” too, which even my high school brain could figure out.

3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Does the inclusion of this book really need any explanation?  I came to it for the romance in my early teens and read it now for the wicked humor and its dark reality of the Way Things Are (I mean, Were, because surely women’s lives are lived in a perfectly fair world now).

4.  The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. I read this first my freshman year of college and have a little notebook from the time with handwritten “Important Quotations” that is filled with lines from this book.  When I reread it a couple of summers ago, I saw why:  what a psychological study, what a depth of mind—examined, and examining.  What frustrating sorrow. What an achievement.

5.  “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman. Another one that passed quickly through my head in that terrible high school lit class, then caught me in college, but was a deep and true revelation one perfect summer afternoon, read out loud while lying in a hammock under a tree.

6.  The Adventures of Huck Finn by Mark Twain.  Why do they let kids read this book? I loved Tom Sawyer and couldn’t wait for this “sequel” when I was ten.  Oops.  Reading it as an adult was, ahem, a little bit of a different experience.  I’m not sure it’s possible to understand American without reading this book.

7.  Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.  The landscape, the passion, the wails across the moors, the story of a story, the passion, the passion.  Let’s not forget that people are always people first, even back in the olden days when everyone was wearing all that buttoned-up, stiff clothing, sitting around parlors drinking tea.

8. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.  I read this for class at least three times in college, and it wasn’t until the last time that I sunk into its depths.  Or, rather, its depths sunk into me.  I think it makes for a great sequence to read Heart of Darkness, then watch “Apocalypse Now,” then reread Heart of Darkness then watch “Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” about the making of the movie.  Then reread Heart of Darkness.

9.  “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold.  Well…I hope the kids still read this in their survey courses (if that’s what they’re called), but I’m not sure it’s still considered the must-read it was back when I was in college.  But what a potent message for the impressionable young writer, especially one who lived in a dorm room overlooking a lake, listening to the waves each night?

10.  Toss-up:  Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, Thomas Hardy, Ibsen, Chekhov!  All works that were influential enough on me to make this list—yet none feels 100 percent deserving of its own entry the way the others do.  Yet I ache at the thought of excluding any of them.  Remember what Eliot said about rules?

11.  I’m not sure Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is this type of classic, but I don’t think anyone can really understand women without reading this book.  (Watching “Sex in the City” is NOT a substitute!)  I still can’t forgive Amy for burning Jo’s manuscript, and it still annoys me that Jo was able to!

I know there are many, many books I haven’t included and might if I wrote this list on a different day.  I know that I cheated with some on the WWI cut-off and not on others that would make this list with an expanded or different timeline.  I know I’m supposed to have Shakespeare on this list or Homer.  I know my list reflects my American background and schooling.  But there is something bracing about winnowing, about pushing to think which books go on the shortest possible list, which classic books changed my life profoundly, making me who I am, which books would be the absolute last I would toss into the fire.

Friday, January 17, 2014

10 Classic Books I Wish I’d Read

Not that it’s too late to do so, of course, and isn’t this the time of year for grand resolutions?  Often I pick one grand book to read/reread as a summer project, and perhaps I should choose from this list of gaps in my reading life.  (Oh, and I think this is a good time to name-drop that I HAVE read Ulysses by James Joyce, and perhaps at this point, the greatest joy of having done so is to think about the last few pages of Molly’s soliloquy and to mention this achievement as much as possible.)

Here goes…true confessions of ignorance, in random order, ten classic books I have not read and wish I had:

1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  I’m pretty bad on all the big Russians, actually, and once in a fit of guilt over that fact, I read Anna Karenina which promptly went on my “favorite books bookshelf,” so what’s my problem?

2 & 3. The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.  I read some Faulkner in college, and I know he’s brilliant, etc., and teaching in a low-res MFA program in the South, Faulkner is basically inescapable.  But you know what…Faulkner just may not be my thing.

4.  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  I know that this book is on many people’s favorites list, but I hear “one sentence that goes on for pages” and I’m afraid I think, “Uh-oh, Faulkner-esque.” I am shameful, I know.

5.  Beloved by Toni Morrison.  Okay, I have NO excuse for this one, except that it feels as though maybe it should be read in college, under guidance, and—apparently—I am a lazy reader.  I need to write up a syllabus for myself, with scary deadlines and threats of reduced grades.

6.  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  I even started this one, and it was good.  The problem:  I started it on an airplane going to France and then I fell asleep and then once in Paris I chose to drink wine and eat tartare instead of read, and then I chose to watch French TV instead of read and on the way home, I chose to sleep on the plane.

7.  Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust.  Does anyone REALLY read this?  But boy, if I did, I sure would wedge that fact into every possible conversation.  (If it matters, I loved Madame Bovary, so I’m not as shallow as it may seem with regards to things French and French-related.)

8.  The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  You know, I just don’t care that much if I’ve read this or not.  I didn’t even see the movie!  But people seem to love it.  Maybe it won’t become a “classic” and I can squeak by with my ignorance.

9 & 10.  King Lear and MacBeth by Shakespeare. Oh, wow.  Did I just write this in ink?  Despite many Shakespeare classes and productions and even movies, I have neither read nor seen these two.  Nevertheless, I can converse quite knowledgeably about them (“Out, out damned spot!”) and possibly even write a class paper for a (barely) passing grade.  Still, as Mark Twain noted, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,” and passing knowledge of these masterworks is NOT the same as reading/seeing them.  Here’s my summer project.

11.  Bonus:  Sometimes I wish I had read Don Quixote by Cervantes but never enough to ever in my life have bought a copy or even picked one up in a bookstore or library.

Last word:  Don’t forget that I did read Ulysses!  And Moby-Dick!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Converse Low-Res MFA: Winter Residency Wrap-Up

How can ten days contain so much conversation, laughs, insights, glasses of wine, hugs, moments of immense pride, writerly gossip, and inspiration?  Here, then, are only a very, very, very few of my personal highlights at the recent winter residency for the Converse Low-Res MFA program, held in the mountains of North Carolina at the Pine Crest Inn in Tryon:

--Not to start with a disappointment, but I was distressed that the Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge was closed because it was Tuesday when I drove past it on my way to Tryon. To make matters worse, the line at the Cook-Out was 30 cars long.  I had to stop at Taco Bell, for goodness sake. I’ll have to stop talking about these places if you people are going to interfere with my plans!

--Our keynote guest speaker was the super-smart Mark Powell who read from forthcoming work and gave an amazing craft lecture about finding “the emotional core of the story.”  I’m paraphrasing a bit, but I scribbled down some excellent advice from the masters: 
·         Dig deep enough in one place and you’ll hit a groundswell of universal experience:  Flannery O’Connor
·         Whatever you’re ashamed of, write that: Raymond Carver
·         Write naked, write blood, write from exile: Dennis Johnson
·         The difference between a professional writer and an amateur is that the professional will write 300 pages and tear it up, and the amateur will try to save it:  Harry Crews

--CNF faculty member Susan Tekulve gave a great lecture on how to write love scenes and death scenes and made us laugh with her examples of “what not to do” (sorry, Charles Dickens, but apparently Little Nell doesn’t translate to the 21st century). 

--We had some incredible poetry guests this semester, including poet Jillian Weise, who had me with her terse, tight poems but who really grabbed me when she leaned over the podium and said, “I shouldn’t tell you this, but…” and told us anyway. Poet Jeanine Hathaway did a fabulous reading from a collaborative project in which her part was to write poems based on prompts from the language of textiles.  Since our writing workshop had been working with prompts, this was additional evidence of how prompts can open the creative mind.

--Oh, the stupid, stupid weather…poet Albert Goldbarth was stranded in the Midwest and our agent couldn’t get to us from New York, but an unexpected free night sort of helped pace everyone and meant we could watch the big BCS game, most of us with immense joy at the outcome. 

--My friend Sheri Joseph drove up from Georgia, braving the cold, and she and I read together which was a pleasure and an honor for me. The new story I read was also based on a prompt, so I liked keeping that theme going.  I had recently finished Sheri’s new novel Where You Can Find Me, so it was great to hear more about her writing process (writing 400 pages of pre-story and throwing it away!) and to get the inside scoop on being photographed for Vanity Fair as part of “Atlanta’s literary sorority.”

--My travels in Georgia over the summer inspired my craft lecture, in which I compared Flannery O’Connor’s first published story, “The Geranium” with its ultimate revision, her last story, “Judgement Day,” as I pondered the process of revision and how the story made that 18-year journey.  I love how attentive the audience always is at these residencies, and how smart they are with their questions. They keep me on my toes, for sure!

--Co-teaching with my colleague, fiction writer Marlin “Bart” Barton, was as fabulous as usual.  We had an excellent class, and we focused our discussion on plot structure and developing scenes.  I was especially impressed at how inventive the workshop students were when we were playing around with plots…they were beautifully mean to our poor, imaginary characters, shoving them into dire situations, and I know this bodes well for the fiction I’ll be reading over the weeks to come.

--We had eight graduates this semester, all from the fiction side, so each was someone I have worked closely with over the past few years…and I will miss these men and women terribly now that they’ve graduated.  But as a last hurrah, they treated us to some amazing lectures and riveting readings; I was so proud of all of them.  I especially applaud the moments of bravery I witnessed, as more than one chose to read selections that were emotionally close or otherwise difficult.  Bravo and brava!

--As for the food at the Inn, I can’t deny that there were a few slip-ups due to some malfunctioning equipment in the kitchen, but in spite of that, we had some amazing soups, especially a tomato (and cauliflower?) soup for lunch, and a lovely dish of sliced broccoli served raw/blanched with light lemon vinaigrette (please remember that I don’t even like broccoli), and crab cakes with a spicy kick of a green sauce.  Oh, and how did I almost forget those lemon ricotta pancakes!?

--I’m sure I’m forgetting 1000 other things, but I won’t forget to thank our fearless director, Rick Mulkey, for all his hard work creating and nurturing this special community of writers (the expression “herding cats” comes to mind).  If you’d like to join us at Converse this summer, applications are due February 15. (Details here.) We would love to welcome you!


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