Last fall, when I sold my debut story collection to Grove/Atlantic, a smart friend whose book had just come out (and was doing extraordinarily well) wrote to encourage me to get on Twitter, stat. He said it was far and away the best place to meet book people and readers. He said: “Make sure you start well before the book’s release date so that you can build a following and people know you’re genuine and not just pushing your book.”
Tracy K. Smith
I met Tracy K. Smith a couple of weeks before she won the Pulitzer Prize for her terrific and completely ravishing new book, Life on Mars. We were at a book party for Stephen Motika and his lovely new book, Western Practice – a loft somewhere downtown, in the rain, owned by people I didn’t know. Tracy came over to tell me what a great speaking voice I had (aside from being raspy and constantly compared to Harvey Fierstein and Wolfman Jack, it is also pretty loud) which is not always the best opening line – except that in Tracy’s case, the speaking voice at large was a subject quickly abandoned for the more important subjects of writing, teaching and other poets we both know and love.
Life on Mars is a book about a world real and a world imagined and, at times, a kind of world ecstatically hoped for. And so, my questions for Tracy really had to do with how she managed to take on those worlds in such a simple and intimate way and how, in the end, such a balancing act is a vocation the poet is – when the wind is right – uniquely qualified for.
I first heard Wendy Mnookin read her work during AWP, and later I discovered our odd, unfortunate commonality: Both of our fathers were killed in car accidents. The circumstances differ greatly, but the impulse to write about death, to look at it from every direction, is the same, so this week I asked Mnookin to join me in a conversation about poetry and grief.
We could probably write several posts about how it’s almost schizophrenic to analyze and edit this work, as if the grieving daugther puts words to paper, and a separate self becomes the cool-eyed editor. The brain of my editor self often plays the final words of Raymond Carver’s poem “Your Dog Dies” in a continual loop: “You wonder how long this can go on.” But then the grief always has an answer.
1. What is your obligation to fact in your poems about grief? That is, in writing about an event that has happened— the death of a parent— do you feel tied to the facts or free to invent?
Two winters ago, brand-new to the creative writing community of Madison, Wisconsin, I was at ground zero of the national debate on union rights, caught in a throng of 70,000 protestors marching around the State Capitol, screaming “Whose Streets? Our Streets!,” “This Is What Democracy Looks Like!,” and “It’s Not About The Money, It’s About The Rights!” while a choir of scarved-and-mittened “radical grannies” belted “We Shall Overcome” through a PA system on the Capitol lawn, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson milled about, waiting for his time on the microphone.
University of Wisconsin Press, March 2012
Dear Dr. Poetry,
I’m a mime currently looking to transition into set design, but I keep losing jobs because my sketches are just blank pages. I have no idea how to translate emotion into visual effects or create a scene that supports a story. I’m really out of my element. Please help.
–Trapped In a Box
The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the third post on Omaha, Nebraska by Katie Wudel. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor
Omaha, Nebraska is fueled by great food, financial smarts, and an optimistic entrepreneurial spirit. This trifecta has made it the ideal home for a seemingly motley crew: indie label Saddle Creek Records, the College World Series, Herman Cain, Warren Buffett, Omaha Steaks, and Alexander Payne. Omaha’s low-cost living and independent outlook have empowered a fast-growing, fiercely loyal tribe of innovative creative thinkers who care about where they live and constantly seek ways to make it better—whether that means improved public transit or a wider array of small presses and reading series. In recent years, Omaha’s topped practically every one of those “Best American Cities for Young Professionals” lists. It’s a terrific habitat for someone with a writerly sensibility, particularly in a recession: affordable housing, some quiet time, a culturally satisfying lifestyle, and a compassionate community willing to help you see your harebrained idea through to its fruition.
A Conversation With Traci Brimhall, Amy Gerstler, Andrew Hudgins, and Timothy Liu
1. How do your poems come to you?
Traci Brimhall: They rarely come to me. Usually I have to go find them. They’re a bit wily like that and generally prefer midnight over noon and my office floor rather than my desk.
Amy Gerstler: Slowly and murkily. Via dredging of a mucky mind. Collage is a main method with me so I often construct text from bits and pieces. Things people say, misapprehensions, weird persistent memories, odd images, notes taken from varied sources, photos, shreds of songs, newspaper captions, half digested obsessions, menu entries, prayer shards, morsels of archaic dictions, lines from letters etc. can be catalysts or fodder or both. For example, last night I heard a guy say, “They met in glass-blowing class.” A spark of happiness fizzed in my brain as I wrote down the line for later use.
This is old news, but in 2005, the Poetry Foundation gave the poet Billy Collins something called the Mark Twain Poetry Award of $25,000, “recognizing a poet’s contribution to humor in American poetry.” The press release included these two sentences: “Billy Collins has brought laughter back to a melancholy art. He shows us that good poetry need not always be somber poetry.” That a foundation with the word Poetry in front of it would actually support writing they then label melancholy is, I suppose, baffling enough (though one can easily sense, being a press release, that melancholy was used only to make laughter stand out), but to then give an award to the best selling poet in American history (Collins’ book, Sailing Alone Around the Room is rumored to have earned him a million-dollar advance) even more money is quixotic. Couldn’t they have given the $25,000 to someone who really could use the money as a bribe to make their poems funny? Or, at the very least, funnier?
The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the second post on Portsmouth, New Hampshire by Meganne Fabrega. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor
As you cross over the Piscataqua River on Route 95 North heading toward Maine, look eastward and you’ll spot Portsmouth, NH, a town known far beyond its borders for its many writers, artists, musicians and craftspeople.
City: Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Surrounded by working seaport, Portsmouth teems with stories old and new just waiting to be overheard. From April to November, the streets are filled with visitors, but local writers and readers know the best year-round spots for a good book recommendation and a reliable cup of joe. Resident area writers include Katherine Towler, Toby Ball, Dan Brown, David McPhail, Julia Older, Ted Weesner, Jr., and Tim Horvath. Thomas Bailey Aldrich supposedly set the stage for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when he wrote The Story of a Bad Boy in 1870. You can visit his home today at Strawbery Banke, a living history museum located on the waterfront.
Portsmouth has been both center stage and a bit player for a wide range of novels such as Joe Coomer’s Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God, The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve, Boon Island by Kenneth Roberts, and The Tory Lover by Sarah Orne Jewett. Portsmouth even has its own Poet Laureate program that appoints an outstanding local poet every year to the esteemed post.
Where to find reading material:
Nearly ten years ago, when I was a twenty-year-old baby-poet with a sense of self-importance even more inflated than it is today, I organized a “Poetry in Protest” reading in Amherst, Massachusetts to demonstrate against what became, a couple months later, “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
My work screening manuscripts for this event forever changed the way I understood what it meant to be an editor. Increasingly, I viewed every editorial choice as a fundamentally political decision that went far beyond an assessment of aesthetic quality—not just in terms of selection based on a diversity of aesthetics, identities, and literary intentions, but also the much more taken-for-granted criteria we use to decide whether a piece of literature is good or bad: chief among them the notion of “accessibility,” the very idea of “cliché,” the truism “show, don’t tell,” the widespread use of qualifiers like “sentimental” or “didactic” to justify why a poem or story fails, and the general reticence to ignore an author’s biography or lived experience in favor of evaluating the author’s work “independently.”Continue Reading