I Have a Favor to Ask


Is there anything more head-smackingly awkward than asking favors of other writers? You might never have experienced writer’s block in your life, but sit down to compose a 200-word email to the friend you need something from, and find yourself twelve hours later with nothing but a vacuumed carpet.

And yet it’s totally necessary. And anyone you’re writing to has definitely been there, wondering how they could possibly ask something so huge from such a busy person, and wishing they’d been to that one magical conference that would have hooked them up with all the contacts and favors ever. You know, the one everyone else went to.

Lucky for you, I’m here to help. Simply use the following form, and you’ll never be pen-tied again.Continue Reading

Round-Down: On Women Writers And the Fallout from ‘Confession’ in the Digital Age

1150px-Astronomer_Edward_Charles_Pickering's_Harvard_computersSocial media is in the spotlight—or crosshairs, as it may be–in the literary landscape this week. Several articles and author interviews have touched upon both the benefits and the tremendous costs known to an author maintaining their online presence, none of them coming to a firm conclusion about whether it’s better to be Harper Lee or Hanya Yanagihara, Cheryl Strayed or Elena Ferrante when promoting a book. All of the attention being paid to how we market ourselves online has me asking: Does social media pose yet another disadvantage to women writers? Or is it a blessing that gives us easier access to mainstream audiences? Women are particularly vulnerable to the lure of public confession that the internet seems to demand—and they are most likely to be the ones to suffer fallout from it.

After Laura Bennett’s piece in Slate raised the question of whether publication of personal confessions is exploitative, The Guardian interviewed a variety of editors for outlets that often publish gone-viral first person essays. Curiously, all of these editors were themselves women and not all of them agreed on whether women were more likely to write confessionals than men.

My studies of literary history have revealed that the hyper-awareness of a woman writer’s biography has always, always garnered more attention than a male writer’s—and our obsession with a woman’s biography over her work has in some ways doomed many women writers either to obscurity or to the assumption that more women write more personally than men. For example, no one today doesn’t know the name of William Shakespeare. And yet, who among us recalls Mary Darby Robinson, an eighteenth century sonneteer? While she was alive, her personal life was of great interest to many critiquing her work. As Paula Backscheider puts it in her book, Eighteenth Century Women Poets and Their Poetry, “That [Robinson] succeeded Robert Southey as poetry editor of the Morning Post and died arranging a three-volume collection of her poetry is seldom mentioned, but the ‘autobiographical’ aspects of [her poetic sequence] Sappho and Phaon (1796), with its ‘jilted’ woman’s voice, nearly always attracts comment.”Continue Reading

On Context & Omission: Alain de Botton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John McPhee, and Claudia Rankine

imageCraft talks regarding omission lean heavily on Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, what John McPhee recently called, “or, how to fashion critical theory from one of the world’s most venerable clichés.” Aside from the obvious trimming of superfluous language or gratuitous scenes, it could be argued that omission, in one extreme, is the antithesis of context. Nonfiction writers debate the ethics, merits, and necessity of omission—in order to construct a concise narrative, omission is needed, but does the removal of certain elements make a story less true? Is context even necessary? What happens when whole passages or chunks of backstory are removed, in fiction and nonfiction?

Claudia Rankine recounts attending Serena Williams’s 2012 semifinal match at the U.S. Open in a recent article for The New York Times Magazine. A similar version was told to Paula Cocozza for The Guardian, where Rankine mentions watching the match with her daughter, nine years of age at the time. Rankine asked the white American man beside her why he was cheering for the opposing player from Belarus, a blonde woman, and when the man vacates his seat after further questioning, Rankine’s daughter “cringe[s] with embarrassment.”

The instance is not included in Citizen: An American Lyric, though there are lengthy sections regarding the racism and aggression Serena Williams has encountered and responded to over the years. Written largely in second-person, Citizen is not about Rankine’s experience but about a collective of voices. In the magazine article, “Her Excellence,” Rankine elaborates on this experience using first-person:

Two years ago, recovering from cancer and to celebrate my 50th birthday, I flew from LAX to J.F.K. during Serena’s semifinal match at the U.S. Open with the hope of seeing her play in the final. I had just passed through a year when so much was out of my control, and Serena epitomized not so much winning as the pure drive to win. I couldn’t quite shake the feeling (I still can’t quite shake it) that my body’s frailty, not the cancer but the depth of my exhaustion, had been brought on in part by the constant onslaught of racism, whether something as terrible as the killing of Trayvon Martin or something as mundane as the guy who let the door slam in my face. The daily grind of being rendered invisible, or being attacked, whether physically or verbally, for being visible, wears a body down. Serena’s strength and focus in the face of the realities we shared oddly consoled me.

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Letter to myself: On fatherhood and poems


A published letter is a strange act. It’s like a whisper made into a loudspeaker. It’s a secret note the town’s tacked onto the city hall bulletin board after the carrier pigeon nosedived into the public square. It’s intimacy externalized. Some letters seem to speak to no one at all, but the best letters, though they’re addressed to another, make us each feel touched: think of Baldwin’s letter to his nephew. Or Kazim Ali’s to Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Or, right here on the blog, Megan Mayhew Bergman’s lovely one to her daughters urging them not to “be good.” You overheard it. You’re pilfering the epistolary form now. A self-addressed published letter is strangest of all, but you and I could use a speaking-to.

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Sounds Like Your Next Story!


SOUNDS LIKE YOUR NEXT STORY!: a short play with infinite scenes.

Well-Meaning FRIENDs and FAMILY


Lights up on the WRITER and a FRIEND, having coffee.

WRITER: I forgot to tell you about the date. The guy literally asked the bartender out right in front of me, and so—

FRIEND: Hey, at least you could get a great short story out of that! You could give him a really stupid name!

WRITER: Ha, yeah. Well.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Catapult Launches Onto the Literary Scene


Elizabeth Koch recently conceived of a promising new literary venture, Catapult, that launched yesterday. Jennifer Kovitz, the publisher’s publicity and marketing director, said that “Catapult is dedicated to spotlighting extraordinary narratives (as fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and graphic/illustrated projects) and we intend for Catapult to be an inclusive community for writers at all stages of their careers.”

Kovitz explains that the publishing company “was conceived by Andy Hunter and Elizabeth Koch in 2014, and has been just over a year and three months from conception to launch.” Hunter, co-founder of Electric Literature, will serve as Publisher, and Pat Strachan, who worked at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, will serve as Editor-in-Chief.

Catapult’s team members and their positions in the independent press community already situate the publisher within a revered literary landscape; the company seems poised to be of great new influence—and soon.

It is not often the case that I don’t at all question the necessity of a new literary venture. Catapult, however, promises to deliver the best in contemporary work today with an eye turned seriously toward supporting writers and readers in an ever-evolving industry.

Catapult already looks to be highly ambitious, well-organized, and worthy of attention. Its launch onto the literary scene seems at once careful and forceful, carrying the weight of extraordinary writing from its emerging and established writers alike. It is rare, too, to find this combination of vision, talent, dedication, resource, and commitment to voices at all levels—all qualities that give it the potential to be a fantastic literary force.

The new publishing company has been offering—and will continue to offer—excellent workshops with greats such as James Hannaham since April. Its first release is Pagdett Powell’s story collection Cries for Help, Various. David Byron Queen reviews the title at The Rumpus, and writes that the work is a “stirring balance of silliness and tragedy transcends and wins, over and over.”

Head over to Catapult’s website to read great new work by a cast of talented writers.

Poetry as Design


A car that can’t get you from point A to point B is a bad car. A pitcher that can’t hold liquid is a bad pitcher. A garment that doesn’t fit the human form is a bad garment. (Make it work, designers!) A poem that doesn’t make you feel something is a bad poem.

Too simple, yes, but it’s a start.

I’m bored of the vague and toothless critical language that often surrounds poetry. What does it mean for a poem to be “haunting”? “Passionate”? “Brilliant”? “Beautiful”? These words of praise are just euphemisms for the slightly embarrassing phrase: “I really like this.” They indicate genuine appreciation (which is excellent and necessary in our hypercritical age) but they don’t get us any closer to the questions of why and how a poem works. I want a pragmatic critical language that lets me examine a poem just like any other product of design. A poem is no more self-expressive than a clock and contains no more human spirit than a refrigerator, but should be demonstrably just as useful as either. How do we use poems, and how do we know how to use poems?Continue Reading

What Happened to Tagore?

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 11.02.51 AMYou could visit India and never hear the name Rabindranath Tagore. In fact, if you don’t live in India, you may well have never known Rabindranath Tagore existed. But this was not always the case: recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, Rabindranath Tagore became one of the major influences in the formation of the India we know today. All the while, he wasn’t identified as a politician, social leader, or revolutionary: he was a poet. Or, as his contemporary Gandhi noted, The Poet.

And Tagore didn’t write poetry only either: he wrote the national anthems for both India and Bengal, he composed plays, gave speeches, and, in his later life, took up painting. He frequently traveled to Europe and other parts of Asia to lecture; he met with Einstein. So why does his name no longer resonant, especially among younger Indian poets and artists?

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Reading as Intoxicant, Part I: Neurochemical Qualities of the Modern Manic Page Peeler

De Amerikaanse dichter Allen Ginsberg in 1979 in de Gentse Poëziewinkel.

De Amerikaanse dichter Allen Ginsberg in 1979 in de Gentse Poëziewinkel.

Richard Wright once wrote that reading is like a drug. Countless other authors have written some variation of that same assertion. If you’ve ever found yourself crushed in a corner weeping like a crazy person because the end of your latest literary fixation was fast coming to a close, or buying more books than you could ever read in a lifetime, or huffing the exquisite scent of a freshly bound book like that accidental splash of gasoline upon your sneaker, then maybe you’ll agree. And so would science.


Like some illicit depressants, a book can be a most calming boon. The act of reading for just six minutes is enough to reduce stress levels by up to 68% or aid your nocturnal rituals. Like the most haughty of hallucinogens, vivid reading can also stimulate all kinds of interesting brain function, eliciting hypervisceral and tactile responses:

In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When subjects looked at the Spanish words for “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex lit up; when they saw the words that mean “chair” and “key,” this region remained dark. The way the brain handles metaphors has also received extensive study; some scientists have contended that figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more. Last month, however, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not. (Source)

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Writing the Body: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maggie Nelson, & Lidia Yuknavitch


The age of media and internet is one of fractal, ephemeral bodies—well-curated images of the self from certain angles and frozen in time, dust-coated corpses at the aftermath of a quake that provide little context, statistics and numbers that break down how many and what ages and when, yet provide little to no feeling. The body in writing is a vessel to feeling—to empathy. Reading Lidia Yuknavitch, Maggie Nelson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others, is to feel.

At a recent lecture, Maggie Nelson said that a “ringing sense of mortality […] underscores everything we write.” The body, unlike the internet, is finite. It is deeply personal and universal—we all have one, but we only ever experience our own. Lidia Yuknavitch says, “we live by and through the body, and the body, is a walking contradiction.” Meaning, a body can be both beautiful and violent, and often fosters both simultaneously—new life and eventual death. Lidia Yuknavitch’s anti-memoir The Chronology of Water opens with a stillborn, rooting the reader in the author’s body at a certain place in time.Continue Reading