Monday, March 23, 2020

TBR: EDGE by Barbara Ungar

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 



We don’t expect an elevator pitch from a poet, but can you tell us about your work in 2-3 sentences?

EDGE is named for the EDGE list, which stands for Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered. Most of the poems in it describe a singled endangered species, although there are some more general poems about living through and attempting to cope with The Sixth Extinction.

What boundaries did you break in the writing of this book? Where does that sort of courage come from?

These are the most impersonal and highly researched poems I’ve ever written. I wasn’t even sure they were poems at first, but I was driven by my obsession with The Sixth Extinction, so didn’t really care. I thought about Marianne Moore’s animal poems as an ideal model. In educating myself, I hope to also pass on information that might be valuable to someone else, or just make them care more about all the transfixing creatures we are destroying in our carelessness and greed.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

This was the easiest road to publication ever. Once I put the poems together into a chapbook, I sent it out to a few contests, but in the meantime, a friend told me to try Ethel. I did, and in under 24 hours, I heard back, We would love to publish this.

The low was purely physical: I think because I was on sabbatical sitting at my computer (in a highly unergonomic set-up at my dining room table) doing research and writing all day, then jumping up to do Zumba or Pilates, I slipped a disc and spent five months in PT and recovery.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

Every detail I included in these poems surprised me: I fell in love with each species while working on it. I was also surprised by the speed of acceptance of the manuscript (I have barely had time to get any individual poems published) and also by the excitement of my poet-pals at these poems, which are nothing like my usual (more personal, not to say confessional, and often humorous) work. I hope I managed to get some humor in there, despite the tragic subject.

What’s something about your book that you want readers to know?

Some estimates say that four species are disappearing an hour, others say up to two hundred per day. We know only a very small portion of the natural world, which is melting away all around us. Each of these exquisite forms evolved over millennia and is irreplaceable, but so many are vanishing before we even have the chance to name them or know anything about them. The great writer and biologist E. O. Wilson warns that we have no idea at what point, as a result, our entire ecosystem might crash.

How did you find the title of your book?

As soon as I discovered the EDGE list, I knew I could use it.

Who is your ideal reader?

People who think they don’t like poetry but are surprised to find that they can read, comprehend, and enjoy my work.

How do you approach revision?

Obsessively. Discovering the poem is the hard part for me: my favorite metaphor is fishing. Once I’ve got one on the line, I’m completely happy and in the zone, and I can edit for hours. I generally start longhand, usually free writing, until the poem takes shape: then I type it up and print it, read it out loud, and revise in pencil, mostly trimming and trimming away, till it’s as spare as it can be. Sometimes I move parts around. When I can’t make it any better, I give it to one of my poet pals for criticism, and then repeat the process. I researched these poems online, gathering pages of information, which I printed out; I highlighted whatever caught my imagination, strung those parts together, and then started trimming and shaping. I like Michelangelo’s metaphor of seeing the sculpture in the stone and chiseling away until it’s revealed; I hope I accomplished something like that with my blocks of research.

What was your experience ordering these poems?

The first poems I wrote were the Madagascar poems, which come early in the book. Then I tried to vary them in length and tone, and the size of the subject species (some very tiny, others huge). I tried to begin and end with more general poems, and intersperse those throughout. I tried to end with a bit of hope, not to be too despairing.)

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book?

I am the opposite of a foodie, perhaps because I have anosmia (no sense of smell). But I would beg people to please avoid eating red meat: while humans are only 1/3 of the mammals on the planet by weight, another 60% are our livestock, mostly cows and pigs; this leaves only 4% left for ALL wild creatures, from mice to elephants. You don’t have to go vegan, or even vegetarian, but if we all simply ate less meat, there would be that much more room on the planet for everything else. And no farmed fish! It’s terrible for the ocean, and for wild fish.


READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.barbaraungar.net

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR PILE:

READ A POEM FROM THIS BOOK, “El Zunzuncito (Cuban Bee Hummingbird)”:



Saturday, March 14, 2020

TBR: Don’t You Know I Love You by Laura Bogart

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 



Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

Don’t You Know I Love You is about a young woman, Angelina, who comes from a chaotic home learning to extricate herself from the influence of her violent, yet charismatic father – without turning into her mother, who forfeited her own hopes and ambitions years before. Angelina learns more about who she is – and more importantly, who she wants to be – through developing as an artist and falling in love for the first time, but the patterns she’s grown up with threaten her happiness.

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?  

The character I most enjoyed creating is definitely Angelina, because she undergoes the most personal growth and change throughout the course of the novel – she starts off very armored and angry (and understandably so!), but with a tender, protective side she’s not always sure how to show. She becomes an artist, and in doing so, she becomes more of who she’s meant to be, and more importantly, who she wants to be. I feel like we so rarely see a woman artist’s coming of age, on the page; it seems so often like it’s still the providence of broody young men. So, it was exciting and powerful to be able to reimagine that story for a young woman, my own version of Rebel Without a Cause.

The character who gave me the most trouble was Jack, in part because I wanted to write about, and from the perspective of, a deeply troubled and toxic man – without seeming like I glamorized or validated his toxicity. I think a lot of the rise of the anti-hero we had across media a few years ago was really instructive because it showed how seductive it can to be render a person who does bad things in a rose-colored light, to be “edgy,” so I was very careful to portray how Jack’s violence and destructiveness truly haunted his daughter and his wife. Still, if I was going to put readers inside Jack’s head, I knew I had to make it a worthy, if uncomfortable, place to sit and stay a while – I saw my task as making him complex without exonerating him. 

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

I’m always very candid about the fact that it took nearly three years for this book to find its best home in the world because I feel like so much of the writing world, and writing lives, that we see on social media are so carefully curated – just the highest highs and insta-success stories. We had a lot of so-close but not quite because many publishers were really skittish about the intensity of the material. I was very lucky that I have an agent who was supportive and kept sending the book out – I tell all authors who are talking to agents to please, please, please, ask them what they’ll do if the book doesn’t sell to the first, or second, or third, or even fourth round of submissions – and we ended up with the perfect publisher in Dzanc, a publisher that isn’t afraid of the hard and thorny stories, and a real collaborator with their authors.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

If something just isn’t gelling – whether that something is a character or subplot, or even as tiny as a particular sentence structure – don’t hesitate to let it go. Our intuition is the architect of marvelous surprises, so trust it.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

My initial concept for Angelina’s art was much more literal and, in hindsight, sort of blunt. The bone drawings literally just came to me as I was writing one day and as soon as I described the first one, I had a lightning strike moment, like, oh yes, this is exactly what her art is supposed to be like.

How did you find the title of your book?

The title of the book comes from the way Elliott Smith sings the lyric “don’t you know that I love you” in his song “Angel in the Snow”: His voice is beautiful and haunted, knowing and raw – and that’s exactly the feeling I wanted for the book.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

 I have no recipes, but anything they’d eat on The Sopranos is definitely applicable here!

[Editor’s note: May I recommend Carmela’s Baked Ziti?]

*****

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOU TBR PILE:  https://www.dzancbooks.org/our-books/dont-you-know



Monday, March 9, 2020

TBR: Permanent Marker by Sarah Cooper

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 



We don’t expect an elevator pitch from a poet, but can you tell us about your work in 2-3 sentences?

Permanent Marker follows a speaker as she remembers her dead brother, imagines a life with him and attempts to speak to his son.  Set against a southern backdrop, this is a story of addiction, of family and queer identity.  These poems do attempt to reconcile the loss of a sibling and yet resist asking “why.”

Which poem/s did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which poem/s gave you the most trouble, and why?

The first poem, “We Thought About It,” was not one I enjoyed writing, but it did give me the least trouble.  This poem oozes honesty and hesitation.  I chose to place it first because the story of this chapbook is not “addiction is sad” or “this poor speaker lost a sibling.”  The story is complicated because the emotions of loving someone who is an addict are vexing.  This poem strives to encapsulate one experience with the brother where feelings of anger, love, fear and protection intersect. [link to this poem below]

Always, my mother said,” went through numerous renditions.  My mother, father and I shared the experience the poem addresses and I wanted to tell the story through a perspective that was not mine.  My brother was an addict.  And yet, the reality of watching your parents make decisions about his body is one that I can’t explain.  So, opted not to with me as the speaker.  I think this poem works best from my mother’s perspective especially the part of watching my father and recounting his words to the funeral director.  Invoking persona here, and a few other spaces in the book, makes the collection feel collective and collaborative because that’s what life has been for me. [link to this poem below]

“The Lump” is a poem I wrote in a day while ruminating on bodies and embodiment.  These visceral connections to a person who is gone are ones I carry most intimately.  This poem attempts to take a childish act (though potentially quite harmful) and spin it into a story about gratitude. 

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

This manuscript was rejected five times from various chapbook competitions. (Yes, I kept track.)  But, to be honest: it needed to be rejected. The more distance I gained from the experience of loss the more I became able to craft poems about the experience instead of just narrating the experience.  Looking back at previous drafts of poems I find myself thinking: I’m so glad this went through twenty revisions or The rhythm now fits the pacing of thought of the speaker.

One of the great highs to this process was getting to work with Eli Warren (@eliwarrenphoto).  He did the cover art and head shot for this book.  Eli is a local photographer whose work is stunning. 

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

“You own everything that happened to you.  Tell your stories.  If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” (Anne Lamont, Bird by Bird).

How did you find the title of your book?

When I was working on my MFA, Rick Mulkey, during workshop, suggested I title my thesis Permanent Marker.  I had a series of poems about my brother in the thesis and “Permanent Marker” was the title of a poem in the thesis (the same one that’s in the chapbook).  At the time that phrase felt strong and intriguing.

A few years later, as I began putting a chapbook together, I kept finding artifacts with my brother’s name written on them.  Each time I was startled to not only see his name but his handwriting.  I kept thinking, How did I not see this before?  Or, was this even here before?  Then, one day, I went to visit my parents, got out of the car and saw the ax (that’s the cover art) nestled in a tree stump near a pile of chopped wood. I took some photos of it and knew I had to go back to Permanent Marker as the title.  Those two words hold the weight of perceived permanence and the ways we are marked by living.

*****

LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: https://www.sarahcooperpoet.com/

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR PILE: https://readpapernautilus.wordpress.com

READ AN EXCERPT, “We Thought About It” & “Always, my mother said”:
https://thedrowninggull.wordpress.com/2017/07/07/2-poems-sarah-cooper/


Monday, March 2, 2020

TBR: Drowning in the Floating World by Meg Eden


TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 


We don’t expect an elevator pitch from a poet, but can you tell us about your work in 2-3 sentences?

Drowning in the Floating World centers around the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, as well as the Fukushima power plant disaster, exploring diverse manifestations and interpretations of water in Japanese culture and mythology. These poems not only bear testimony to the disaster, but also serve as a warning to our future selves—on not only the dangers of nature, but also the power governments and businesses hold over their people and environment. 

Which poem/s did you most enjoy writing? Why? 

I really enjoyed writing with surrealism. I was really inspired by Shuntaro Tanikawa’s aesthetic, and Patricia Smith’s personified POVs in “Blood Dazzler.” I wanted to find new ways to approach disaster, to reinvent it into mythology as a way to cope with it.
  

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

I always seem to start submitting prematurely. I started sending this collection around in 2015. It wasn’t ready. But of course, I always think it’s ready. And I guess the good thing about this is that it motivates me to keep working on a project and making it the best it can be. The highs were that I got some good encouragement, even early on—it was a semi-finalist, finalist here and there. Toward the end, I knew I needed to keep pushing but was tired. Why hadn’t it found a home yet? By then it had been on submission for almost 4 years. I had a friend encourage me, saying, “I’ve never not seen a book get published that’s gotten that far. It’ll find a home,” and that really kept me going. The poetry business is highly competitive. It takes a lot of rejections to lead to that final acceptance. 

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice? 

I don’t know if this is official writing advice, but I always tell my students to keep digging deeper. I keep telling myself to dig deeper. Sort of connected to your advice [below] of “write until something surprises you”—but we’ve got to keep digging past the obvious, past the telling to the real gem, the real thing driving our writing. The real thing we want to say. I have to work in so many drafts, and often think early on I’ve “hit” what I want to say. But then I come back a month later and it doesn’t resonate. Once I’ve dug deep enough, it resonates every time I come back. We’ve got to do the work to really find that.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

Surprise is what drove this book. I was really inspired by Shuntaro Tanikawa’s beautiful surrealism and humor even in brokenness. This aesthetic really drove how I approached disaster, and made me strive to see disaster from a new angle. The magical realism, the surrealism created something beautiful out of disaster. I was always looking for a new angle, a new image to surprise me and provide that “aha” moment in these poems. 

But I think perhaps to answer your question, what surprised me, is how deeply I connected with this disaster and how it continues to haunt me. I set out to write about it because Japan is close and important to me, and it broke me when 3/11 hit. But through the research and the time spent with this disaster, there’s a whole new intimate level I have with it now. That’s what poetry does. Now, when I see footage in movies of rapid flooding—I particularly remember the moment we were in a theater, and the preview for San Andreas Fault came on the screen. There was a scene of the earthquake, and water rushing, and I almost began sobbing there in my seat. Something like lightning ripped through my chest and I panicked. All I could think of was Tohoku, and I was so shaken. For a moment, I felt like I was there, in Rikuzentakata, in the middle of disaster. Just for that moment, I broke. That’s what poetry does, we carry these moments with us and can never fully let them go. But I didn’t really know that before this collection.

What’s something about your book that you want readers to know? 

It’s probably clear that I want my readers to know about is 3/11. It’s amazing how quickly the news can move on. How quickly we can forget. How long recovery can take. But as tsunami stones remind us, disaster is cyclical. We must remember and pass down this knowledge to the next generation. We cannot continue to live as we did before. Disaster should change us and move us to action. 

But another idea I’d like readers to consider is the transient nature of earthly life, and recovery. As I thought about disaster and water I began thinking of a result of disaster, all that floating debris. All these once useful things now rendered useless. This made me think about the Edo period’s “floating world,” its pleasure district that was created from a rising middle class. That epicurean mindset of joy derived from pleasure. I thought about the ways we try to fill ourselves with pleasure, to forget our traumas or to find meaning. But how brief these things are if they’re rooted in an earthly context. How quickly those things we value become floating debris, useless. Or, as the remains of 80s Japan’s economic boom display, they become haikyo (literally “obsolete hill”): abandoned ruins. This was my thought process for the last section, some of which might come off as jarring. I couldn’t help but explore: now what? what do we do after disaster? How do we cope? Is there permanence to these solutions, or are they only temporary in nature? Where do we root our security, our hope, in an uncertain and disaster-prone world? Do we seek hope in objects and the physical, or something larger? My desire is that readers would also engage with these questions. 
  
Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

Yes! I love Japanese food and it’s such an important part of Japanese life. Some specific Japanese dishes come up in the poems, like natto and unagi don, and obviously Japanese-style rice (rice is so fundamental it’s in the name of every meal—morning rice, afternoon rice, evening rice). Whenever my husband and I make Japanese food, the whole house smells like Japan and then I really feel at home. I recently started making miso soup at home and was surprised how easy (and nutritious!) it is to make. Here’s the recipe I use: https://www.justonecookbook.com/homemade-miso-soup/ 

 *****
  
READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: megedenbooks.com/

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR TBR STACK: https://www.press53.com/meg-eden
  
READ A POEM, “Tohoku Ghost Stories”: http://www.rattle.com/poetry/tohoku-ghost-stories-by-meg-eden/


Monday, February 24, 2020

TBR: The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense by Art Taylor

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 



Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

This collection gathers 16 of my stories from the 25 years (25 years?!) since my first mystery appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine—though really you’d have to cut that quarter-century nearly in half to calculate my output, since it took about 12 years from my first appearance in EQMM (“Murder on the Orient Express” in 1995) to my second (“An Internal Complaint” in 2007). The title story is my most recent publication—in the January/February 2020 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine—and the rest of the collection includes short stories that have won honors including the Edgar Award, the Anthony Award, and several Agatha, Derringer, and Macavity Awards. I’ve been very fortunate with the attention readers have given my short fiction.

Which story did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which story gave you the most trouble, and why?

The opening story in the collection, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” is possibly the quickest I’ve ever written a story—and oddly, possibly the one that people talk most about. Roxane Gay championed the story, which is structured as a recipe, and I’ve heard it’s been taught in creative writing workshops. I came up with the idea while my mind wandered during a Chicago concert my wife, Tara Laskowski, dragged me to. The next morning, I woke up, wrote the first draft quickly, showed it to Tara, revised it, submitted it before noon, and had an acceptance from PANK early afternoon.

That’s an anomaly for me—to say the least.

More like my pace: I wrote the first draft of “The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74” in the early 1990s, and it finally appeared in print more than 25 years later—in the most recent issue of AHMM, as I said above. The first draft was 3,500 words, the final nearly 12,000, and in between it became one strand of a failed novel, reemerged as a novella of about 18,000 words, and… well, there were a lot of years spent putting that one aside, coming back to it, expanding, condensing, tinkering, tinkering, tinkering.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

I’ve been very fortunate in this regard too. My publisher, Crippen & Landru, specializes in high quality volumes of short mystery fiction—both by classic authors and by contemporary voices. I’ve long admired the publishers, long dreamed of having my own work in their series; and I was honored when I heard that they’d been following my own career and thinking the same thing. Everything just came together.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

It may be clich├ęd at this point, but Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” continues to resonate. I’m an extremely slow writer, but somehow, if you keep at it, you can get where you’re going.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

Maybe because I’m a slow writer, partial drafts have sometimes languished for a long stretches before I’ve figured out where a story is going. I submitted the first half of “A Voice from the Past” to some workshop readers—it’s a story which revisits the legacy of hazing at a boys boarding school—and they responded with, “This is great!” and “What’s going to happen next?” And I had to tell them that I really didn’t know—didn’t know to the point that I finally put the draft aside. For nearly five years. When I came back and reread it, suddenly I saw the possibilities lurking in the small details I wasn’t entirely aware I’d folded in—what one character might have been doing, the extremes another character might go to, and how those extremes were rooted in the past. I often tell my writing students that they have to listen to their own work—to what their unconscious might be doing—to figure out what a story is really about, what to do with it. Often I think the best stories come out that way.

What’s something about your book that you want readers to know?

I want to give a shout-out to Luke Buchanan, a North Carolina artist who created an original work in response to the title story—the painting now on the cover of the collection. Luke incorporated several specific elements of “The Boy Detective” into his collage here, and the whole image captures so much that mix of nostalgia and melancholy and uneasiness that I associate with the story myself—and with much of my own work generally.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

I didn’t realize it until I read through the collection at proof stage, but many of my stories feature cocktails! …and they’re occasionally pertinent to the plot, as with the gimlet in “The Odds Are Against Us.” Here’s that recipe:

Gimlet (borrowed from The PDT Cocktail Book)

2 oz. Plymouth gin (Art’s note: Plymouth makes a considerable difference here)
.75 oz. lime cordial (see below)
.75 oz. lime juice

Shake vigorously with ice.
Strain into a chilled coupe glass.

Lime Cordial  (downsized proportionally from the PDT recipe to avoid straining your zesting hand)

4 limes
8 oz. simple syrup

Zest limes, and combine zest with simple syrup. 

After 10 minutes, fine strain into a container and chill. 

Bonus recipe: You can actually make the recipe for coq au vin in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (linked below), but please take care to leave out the arsenic. 

[Editor’s note: I love The PDT Cocktail Book and we’ve made these gimlets many, many times!]

*****


READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.arttaylorwriter.com

READ MORE ABOUT THIS PUBLISHER: www.crippenlandru.com

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK: www.crippenlandru.com

READ A STORY, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”:  https://pankmagazine.com/piece/mastering-the-art-of-french-cooking/



Tuesday, February 18, 2020

TBR: The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons by Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers


TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 


We don’t expect an elevator pitch from a poet, but can you tell us about your work in 2-3 sentences?

Both lyric and speculative, this poetry book imagines a human mission to Mars, the consequence of climate change and environmental ruin. The landscape of Mars is a canvas on which the trespasses of the American Frontier are rehearsed and remade. The collection is mostly concerned with the danger of the colonial mindset, as well as how environmental destruction and gendered violence are linked.

Which poem/s did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which poem/s gave you the most trouble, and why?

Poems that I found especially pleasurable to write include the sonnet crowns: “Deep Space Crown,” and “Backflash: Seven Catastrophes,” and “Fugue for Wind and Pipes.” I love the incantatory quality of a sonnet crown, how the last line of the previous sonnet becomes the first of the next, the calculation and geometry involved of making complete thoughts legible inside the form. 

I also had so much fun with the less “traditional” forms in the collection, such as the poems that use question-and-answer templates: “Red Planet Application,” and “Lost Exit Interview.”  Mixing registers of language—bureaucratic jargon and the diction from standardized tests with the elusive moves of lyric poetry—that was a great pleasure to me, very playful and freeing.

I don’t remember any poems being more troublesome than others, but putting together a book structure that made sense was maddening.  The original manuscript had three sections with the “Backflash” poems—those poems that give glimpses of the ruined earth, the consequences of climate change—all in their own section, midway through the book. In the end, I scattered those poems throughout the book instead, thinking of them as brief associative flashbacks, glimpses that occur fleetingly and with warning, more the way memory actually works. With the new structure, I had to shorten the book to make the temporal balance work, cutting a couple of poems I still kind of miss.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

The process for this book was difficult, sadly.  The manuscript started finalizing or placing in contests as soon as I begin to send it out—a good sign!—but took forever to land.  There was so much interest from many presses, but it took a very long time to get a commitment: this is a big problem with the poetry contest model.

Then, I finally got the book under contract, but I had a bad experience with that publisher; I ended up pulling the book from them after some unethical behavior on their part. Finally, my manuscript ended up in the hands of Lisa Ampleman and Shara Lessley, who went wild for it. I’m so glad I ended up in their hands; working with Acre Books (the micropress at The Cincinnati Review) has been terrific so far.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

“Don’t write what you know; Write towards what you don’t know.” Even when you are using content or forms that you’re familiar with, I think pushing your focus towards what is mysterious or strange—about language, about people, about an event or experience—is the most important thing you can do. In this book, I really exaggerated this approach by creating a whole world and set of circumstances that were wholly imaginary.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

Honestly, I can’t believe I got away with a lyric poetry collection that’s mostly set on Mars, and that some people are taking it seriously. Have you ever heard of such a thing?

How did you find the title of your book?

The title of the book comes from a fairly unremarkable two lines in the last sonnet sequence, “Wind for Fugue and Pipes.”  I like it for its lyric strangeness—how can you tear the tilt from the seasons, exactly?—but also for the ways in which it hints at climate change, the possibility of a planet thrown off-kilter, violently and irrevocably.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

I wish! Food is very difficult and rationed on Mars.  Any recipes are probably vegetarian, too, since animals can’t really survive there.

I think the only drink mentioned in the book would be whiskey in the first poem: alluding to the genre of the Western, those frontier cowboys are always getting drunk. And one of the poem sequences, “Flashback: Seven Catastrophes,” taking place in Indonesia, mentions eating fried rice and coffee, as well as American pizza topped with hallucinogenic mushrooms.  Sorry, I don’t have a recipe for that! Too bad.

*****

READ MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK:

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR PILE:

READ SOME POEMS FROM THIS BOOK:







Monday, February 3, 2020

TBR: The Cactus League by Emily Nemens

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 



Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

Jason Goodyear, star outfielder of the Los Angeles Lions, shows up in Arizona for baseball spring training and his life go sideways. The book follows his descent through the season but also follows the ripples and ramifications of his misdeeds across the entire team and its fanbase. It’s baseball book that’s really about community, vulnerability, and the possibility of starting over each spring.

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

I had a huge cast of characters—a whole expanded roster, all their friends and girlfriends and coaches. That scale and scope came pretty easily—I guess I have a slightly encyclopedic tendency. Cutting that list down was painful! There’s a whole b-string of Lions infielders resting in a drawer.

When I realized that Jason was going to be the backbone—he was already in every story, but his momentum and pull grew with each revision—I had to laser in on this very shy guy. He’s supremely private, an incredibly regimented athlete and reticent colleague. I wanted to preserve that opacity, but I also wanted to figure out where he’d show his cracks and what they would look like.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

Being on submission is the pits. I was nervous and cranky and just certain no one wanted to publish me. But I remember talking on the phone to Emily Bell, my editor at FSG, about the book and she absolutely understood what I was doing—understood it and loved it and had ideas for how it could be better. I hung up with her and thought, “That went well?” It felt like an impossibly good first date. A week later she offered a preempt on the book.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
Revise. Drafting and the intuition of new ideas is so important, but so much of the work of writing comes when you take that idea, pick it apart, polish it, discard it, revisit it, rewrite it, reorient it: I could keep going with the verbs that describe how important revision is to my process, but you get the idea.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

George Saunders, in his TPR [The Paris Review] Art of Fiction interview, talks about intuition steering the writing process. “The biggest thing I’ve learned about writing is that we tend to underestimate and marginalize the irrational, intuitive aspects of it.” I was working hard on this book—breaking rocks, revising line by line, structuring and restructuring for years—but I was surprised that some of my best, some of the biggest, decisions were intuitive ones. Like my Greek chorus began as a traditional one: a group of nameless observers, recounting the events of the past and foreshadowing the future. But then I realized the contemporary equivalent—a disembodied voice, speaking for a community, recounting the past, predicting next steps--that’s the marginalized journalist. That knocked the wind out of me.


How did you find the title of your book?

The Cactus League is the name of the major league baseball spring training league out in Arizona (the Florida league is the Grapefruit League). For people who know from baseball, the Cactus League is a quick-and-easy marker that this book is about spring training baseball. For the rest of us, I like the idea of a group of cactus, in cahoots. Cactus are prickly and desiccated and probably used to being on their own in the desert, but this notion of the “league” suggests some kind of fellowship. On some level, that describes my book. 

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book?

There is a famous steakhouse in the book, Don and Charlie’s. It’s absolutely plastered with sports memorabilia, and they do a good prime rib, but the recipe isn’t so too complicated: don’t overcook it and add some drawn butter. Another character, Sara, is acting as something of a glorified a home health aide, and she’s learning how to cook for her person while on the job. She’s miserable at it—everything is either served raw or burnt to a crisp--but she’s trying!

*****

READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: http://emilynemens.com/

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR TBR STACK: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374117948



Monday, January 27, 2020

Should Writing Teachers Suggest Students Abandon a Book?


By happenstance, I was in a folder of old blog files, and I found this piece that I wrote nearly 7 years ago…and thought, but I’m still pondering this question! So I did a couple of updates, and here we go…and, as noted, I’ve been pondering this question for a long time, so if you’re a current student of mine, please don’t freak out and imagine that I’m talking specifically about you and your work.


 My question: Can—should—I as a teacher tell a student not to write about a certain topic?


 I don’t mean out of a fear that a topic is taboo in society (ha, if anything is anymore) or because I personally don’t care for stories about family vacations. I also don’t mean the blanket statements that you find on the syllabi of many beleaguered undergrad creative writing teachers: “No vampires, no ghosts, no gnomes, no protagonist suicides to end the story.”


 There are several different times that trigger this question in my mind. First would be a story that (I’m guessing, but I know it’s a good guess) is very close personally to the student’s life in some way, but that’s a topic that is terribly overdone and hard to make fresh: an adult thinking back on his parents’ divorce, say, or two sisters cleaning out the house of their dead mother and discovering a so-called life-changing secret. Obviously there are always ways to make these stories interesting, but the student isn’t finding those ways (despite my excellent teaching skills, haha). Or maybe the student is a good writer—the skill is there—but the story itself is just plain dull. And is there a difference if by “story” what I mean is “novel-in-progress”? It’s one thing to work for several weeks on a 15-page story that’s trite, but a far different picture if the student is setting forth on a years-long journey to complete a novel that’s trite. 


On the other hand…do I really know with absolute certainty that this book will “never” get published? Is that the only goal for a writer? It shouldn’t be, though it seems that most students state that this IS their goal, of course. I wrote some novels that didn’t get published and learned quite a bit about writing from the experience. Wasn’t that enough? What would I have done if someone told me the stories were trite? Honestly, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the exact flaw of these particular works, but someone surely could have pointed out many other gigantic flaws during the process. Would I have listened? Would I have wanted to hear that? Would that have been helpful? 


In these situations, I often focus my teacher comments on ways to deepen the story and find more complexity, look at the hard parts of the story the writer is leaving unmined. When the story is too personal, that approach can be a problem, as the student writer may not want to discover (via a writing workshop) that, OMG, my relationship with my father is more challenged than I realized! They like their simplistic story as is, because that’s the story in their head. In real life that’s fine(ish), but not on the page. Is it my job to assist a student toward writing a dull, simple novel that (I know) will never be published? Is that a good day at the office for me?


 Another tricky time that makes me wonder about whether I should tell a student to choose another topic is when the student is turning in competent stories about, oh, married couples in Washington, D.C., but I happen to know that in real life this person has an amazing past of some sort that would provide material that I, as a writer, would KILL to have access to. When I mention this interesting other stuff they might write about, there’s usually a response along the lines of, “Oh, I don’t think so,” and sometimes, “I would never write about that,” or the the full stop: “Not while my mother is still alive.” I always murmur some sort of encouraging something and say, “Maybe someday you’ll be ready for that” and reiterate that I, personally, think that stuff would make an AMAZING book or story, and we go back to the competent stories. While I harbor hope that someday they’ll be ready and that I’ve planted a seed, I’m still sort of sad watching them struggle away, mired in competency, when they could soar. 


And what about the student who isn’t a very skilled writer (yet) who is determined to tackle a giant subject—sometimes personal—that he/she just isn’t able to handle right now? I long to say, “Can’t you practice writing on a smaller canvas for a little while? You’re not Tolstoy (yet).” On the other hand, none of us are, and what’s the harm? I think a lot about this one while I’m writing up critiques that focus on first level things—commas, details, characterization—when on a smaller canvas, this same poor writer could also start learning about bigger issues like structure and conflict that would better serve the writer-in-training. 


Now, I also keep an eye out for a writer who is tackling a story that’s perhaps not theirs to tell (ahem, American Dirt < https://www.vulture.com/2020/01/american-dirt-book-controversy-explained.html>). But even this situation makes me uncomfortable, as no one technically “owns” a story, so instead I bring up the complications in choosing to write about an experience well beyond one’s real-life parameters and outline the literary culture’s current response to such projects and suggest the publishing pitfalls that may be ahead and offer excellent resources like Alexander Chee’s response to the question “Do you have any advice for writing about people who do not look like you?” <https://www.vulture.com/2019/10/author-alexander-chee-on-his-advice-to-writers.html>. But should I tell this student NOT to write American Dirt? 


Our culture is so bound and determined not to harbor any quitters…is this why students feel that need to plow through these novels that aren’t working?  Is there no way to bow gracefully and admit defeat? To step back and gather new resources before returning into the fray? To pause, instead of constantly plow forward? And yet, I’ve said it to classes a thousand times: Writing a novel is a marathon…sometimes you don’t feel like writing, but you just have to…persistence will triumph over raw talent. Blah, blah, blah. I know I even use the word “plow.” Often.


 I remember meeting a very accomplished writer who told me about a time in her MFA days when she had been struggling for months on a novel, bringing in chapters to workshop, and finally her instructor spoke with her privately and said, “You know, you just shouldn’t be writing that. It’s not a novel.”


 “Wow,” I said. “That must have been hard to hear.” 


The accomplished writer said, “Actually, it was very useful to hear. I stopped writing that novel and wrote something else instead.”


 Could it be that simple?


Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Etiquette for Post-MFA Life

This is a rerun, but my craft talk at the last Converse MFA residency was about life 

after the MFA, so I got to thinking about this old post, which I think is still relevant. Here are my thoughts, especially directed to those navigating post-MFA life. 

First, do not expect your teachers to keep in touch with you. They may adore you and your work, but their own writing (and life) is always going to be their priority. This does not mean that they aren’t interested in what you’re doing…just that, for the most part, you will need to be the one to keep in touch. (The teacher-student relationship is, of course, also structured around a certain power dynamic and it is plain wrong for a teacher to pursue a student after graduation [unless that student wins a Pulitzer, haha].) So think about which teachers were especially meaningful to you and your writing life, and think about how to stay connected with them.

Social media is a nice way to keep a casual relationship going with your professors, but if they (or you) don’t use social media, an occasional email/text is, it seems to me, welcomed by most professors. A few dos and don’ts on that occasional email/text:

DO reread what I said and take to heart that word: occasional. Don’t overdo it.

DO follow what your beloved professor is up to and acknowledge his/her publishing successes.

DON’T (ever) attach work you’d like to be critiqued (unless invited, which I'm pretty sure won't happen).

DON’T write only when you want/need something.

DON’T take it personally if your professor is too busy to respond to you immediately, or perhaps ever.

DON’T write only when you want/need something. (Oh, did I say this already? Hmmm…must be important.)

DO ask for letters of recommendation/blurbs if you need them and you have maintained a good relationship with your teacher…but DON’T imagine you can make this request for the rest of all eternity. DO understand that your beloved professor will be beloved by many students who will come along after you. DO imagine that perhaps you’ve got a couple of shots at this sort of favor. DON’T (ever) ask for any letters that are due in less than two weeks.

DO understand that favors go both ways. You are now an MFA graduate, a member of the writing community, and that means you are allowed (encouraged!) to use whatever power you may have to help the people who helped you…can you invite your teacher to read at your reading series? Is your journal looking for a contest judge whom you will pay? Did you write a glowing review of your teacher’s book on Amazon? Can you interview your teacher for a writing blog? DO send an email offering something to your teacher!

DO follow up with your professor with a thank you after he/she has helped you in some way, whether it’s a letter written or advice offered or a question answered or whatever. At this point, your professor is not required to help you and is doing so only from the goodness of his/her heart. Saying thank you is FREE!

DON’T forget that your professor is first and foremost a writer whose job was to teach you. Note the distinction. Once you have graduated from the program, your professor takes no responsibility for you (unless you win a Pulitzer). Sad but true: your professor may not want to stay in touch with you. This might feel like a rejection. But please be gracious. A good teacher will have given you the tools to you need to forge ahead on your own and find your place in the community.

***

I’ll also offer a suggestion that revolves around that word “gracious.” Maybe it turned out you didn’t like your program so much. I’m sorry. I really am. (I wish you would have joined us at the Converse low-res MFA!) But now that you’re “free” of all those “%$#$-ing” teachers who think they’re such “hot $#@$” it might be tempting to let loose on them, either in your writing or on social media or in scathing, tell-all articles.

Don’t.

I’m only offering my own views here, but it’s been my experience that our lovely writing community is a small-small-small-small world, not only in size (I promise I could play six degrees of separation with about any MFA grad and get to a mutual acquaintance) but it is also small in terms of pettiness, which means that people WILL remember that you were the one who trashed the program or your teacher on The Rumpus or in The New Yorker or wherever. (Also, no one will be fooled by your pseudonyms and the tricks you use to disguise people/places…remember what I said about six degrees of separation?)

And think about it: why would you trash the crazy-imperfect-infuriating-inspiring program you graduated from? Now that you’re out, you should feel invested in the success of the program: you want your fellow grads to win awards and bring prestige to your school because that will help you and your degree. When your book is published, you should want to return in triumph to your program, invited back for a reading or a class visit. You should want your name proudly listed on the website as a “famous alum.” The fact is, you are connected in some way to your MFA program for the rest of your writing life.

Bitch and gossip privately, to your friends or at the AWP bar or Treman after you scope the scene to ensure your teachers are out of spitting distance. But always think twice and then twice again before going public about all the crap you endured while at your MFA program. (Unless we’re talking about something illegal or an abuse of power.)

In short, don’t burn bridges…until you win your Pulitzer.

***

Here are a couple of suggestions from some helpful people on Facebook:

DON'T write your former professors to ask questions you can google, and definitely DON'T ask vast questions that cannot be easily and quickly answered (i.e. "how does self-publishing work and should I do it?").

DO offer this advice to your buddies who are still in the program...I'm guessing that this information will be even momre helpful earlier in the program, so you can plan your exit strategy.

***

You may not want to keep in touch with all or any of your former professors, and that’s fine. While many segments of the writing world run on blurbs and letters of recommendation and such, your former teachers are not (and should not be) the only source for acquiring those documents. You will move forth and build your own network of support, and memories of that horrible MFA workshop will fade in time, and maybe soon you will be the teacher opening emails from former students. But one last tip:

DO thank your teachers in the acknowledgements of your first book, and DO spell their names correctly. And if you’re one of my former students, DON’T send me a free copy: I will happily and proudly buy it!

Work-in-Progress

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