I admit I’m doing a bit of catching up – my host was down for a few days due to server issues, so I’ve been setting up a new hosting system, I lost a couple of days to just resting after the tulip adventure (detailed in the last post) and I’m also getting ready to host family, so I’ve been cleaning and setting up. And where is the poetry in all of that? Good question! I’ve written a few poems, but nowhere near a poem a day. How about you?
Speaking of poems a day, I’m going to be the judge for the April 25 Poem a Day Poetry Challenge via Writer’s Digest. Have you heard of it? If you are picked, you get to be in a real anthology and everything. It’s all very exciting. They have a different judge every day, so if you haven’t entered yet, you should!
I’d also like to give a quick shout out to Serena of Savvy Verse and Wit for mentioning me in her “Poetry Has a Genre For You” post on Book Bloggers International. Poetry really does have something for everyone, she’s right – romance, mystery, science fiction.
And also, thanks to C.A. LaRue for nominating this blog for the Beautiful Blogger awards. I like all her nominations, so I would add the following:
–Kelly Davio, for her insider information (as the former editor of the LA Review) and her discussions of books and book tours.
–Kelli Russell Agodon, for her cheerful and useful meditations on the writing life
–Rachel Dacus, whose observations on nature and writing have always been inspiring.
–Rebecca Loudon, whose blog posts have inspired more than one poem.
–Kristen Berkey-Abbott, who discusses Christianity, working in an admin role in a university, and poetry in a unique (and frequently updated) blog.
–Karen Weyant, whose own poetry is fantastic and who discusses working-class and Appalachian poetry books.
–OK, it is hard to pick just seven – how about a tie for seventh: Sandra Beasley, who discusses her poetry career in graceful ways, and Sara Tracey, who has been discussing leaving academia after getting her Phd.
Note to Nominees:
If you chose to accept the award, please do the following:
1. Add the Beautiful Blogger Award logo (found above) to your sidebar.
2. Thank the person who nominated you and create a link back to his/her site.
3. Nominate 7 (yes only seven) other bloggers and say a little something about why they inspire you.
Last year I wrote a little bit about how to survive hard times:
2014 has been a tough year for me physically, mentally, emotionally. I’ve been feeling short-tempered, limited and frustrated with my limitations, like my physicality is interfering with my goals (which it does.) This year alone I’ve had pneumonia, a super-long virus that’s spurred more autoimmune neurological problems, two types of stomach flu, broken my arm, and sprained a couple of joints.
Yesterday I was up in La Conner, Washington, for the Tulip Festival, and happened to see something I have never seen before – a huge mass of trumpeter swans in flight. It was noisy, astonishing. The trip hadn’t started out in an auspicious manner – I had fallen on my right wrist and sprained it. I felt prickly and tired. But the persistent sunshine (unusual for this time of year in the Northwest,) the shining faces of many kinds of tulips and apple blossoms and daffodils, and then the unexpected spectacle of the swans made me remember why we should make an effort to embrace the things we love, to let the light in, to refuse to sit around huddled in fear. When we make a conscious effort to find things to be grateful for.
Palm Sunday was this weekend, Passover began, there was a blood red lunar eclipse. I’m no spiritual expert, but it seems like a spirit-moving sort of time. I was sitting in church (for the first time in a while) and thinking of all the good things that have happened to me – the things I might not have been able to focus on because of the looming fears, physical troubles, or other types of darkness. This Thursday I’m having another MRI to check for things – scary neurological things, I’ll admit – and that induces a kind of anxiety that is hard to forget about, even in the midst of flowers and white-winged birds.
I’m turning another year older this month, and it’s National Poetry month (both of which I’ll admit have been pushed into the corners of my mind.) Being a writer is a funny thing – so many ups and downs – mostly downs – and uncertainty is part of the job. Being human makes us vulnerable to fear, depression, anxiety, genetic mutations, rare autoimmune problems that attack our systems. I mean, we are really pretty delicate little creatures, we don’t have infinite time, and we have to learn to operate within the spheres we are given. The swans reminded me again that we are not tethered to the ground – at any time we can rise up, unexpectedly shining, and create something memorable, unanticipated, miraculous.
Hello from a place of worry. My little 13-month-old nephew is in the Children’s hospital since last night with a bad ear infection, so I’m feeling anxious for him and today I’m going to go to the neurologist again to check out some troublesome symptoms like my legs not working occasionally. So you know, spin spin worry worry.
In happier news, it is supposed to be 70 degrees today, like real spring, and I thought I’d talk a little about cover art. I have very strong ideas about cover art for poetry books – no weeping willows over lakes, no dying roses, no blah blah art. I like dramatic, bold covers – as you can probably see from my previous book covers (see links in the right columns of this page), two of which are done by graphic artist Michaela Eaves, and the third by painter Rene Lynch. I actually think of artists as friends – and have collaborated on some different projects when I could – and think art and poetry can work together more closely than they usually do. So I go around art galleries and read art magazines and write fan letters when I like someone’s work. Plus it helps you know what’s out there.
So, today I’ll talk about the cover art that almost was…and the real cover art reveal tomorrow!
This book, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, was a bit of a challenge, because the subject matter – from Atomic Era nuclear pop culture to robotics to autobiographical poems about growing up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was hard to pin down in artistic form. I wanted something with a girl, something that spoke about nature, maybe something threateningly atomic-y/scienc-y/robot-y.
I found this great vintage postcard that we almost used:
There was also a collage artist friend who had some cool collage ideas too. I may use that art for other purposes, so I won’t show it yet…
Tomorrow I’ll post the mockup of the cover that we have, and reveal our cover art!
Remember that scene in the movie The Devil Wears Prada where Andie goes to the Art Director (played by Stanley Tucci) and whines to him about her boss being mean to her, she’s doing everything she can, in essence, she asks him: What else can I Do? And he rolls his eyes and gives a great monologue about everything she’s not doing, starting with not caring, not studying the subject matter enough and thinking herself above the job.
I was thinking about this scene in conjunction with reading the essays in MFA vs NYC, discussed here, because there are bits buried in different essays, not straight-up ingredients to success or a list of must-do’s to be successful, but little hints of what people (publicists, agents, editors, publishers, successful authors) are doing to push books. “Etsy that shit out!” commands a publicist about the packages she sends out, story after story about people working odd hours at odd jobs in order to survive as a writer, people who spend hours of every day serving other people’s writing.
I was thinking of the desperation underlying a lot of the essays, the notion of a book “going big” – lots of not only book sales, but maybe movie and translation rights, notions of a book (or author) suddenly transformed into a cultural icon. They are desperate, but also committed. This is not a side project, a hobby – books are their life. People who “get lucky” with their books have often worked on said books for years with no reward, have had dogged agents, editors, and publicists work hard on their behalf after the book is taken, and then…the world does what it wants with the book. Sometimes the books become stars, sometimes little more than dim reflective glimmerings in obscure shadow.
The MFA vs NYC book is really less about the MFA/NYC debate and more about working as a writer/teacher versus working in the book industry. Yes, putting in the time and money to get an MFA or to move to NYC involves sacrifice with maybe only a little gain. I suspect most successful writers must both study and work with their local communities and book industries (not necessarily NYC, though that probably helps re: the literary party scene – but places like Seattle, Portland, Chicago, and Minneapolis, and numerous other great cities all over the country – all have their own robust literary communities, publishers, agents, editors…) to get where they want to go. But most of all, they have to do the hard work of writing, re-writing, submitting work, getting rejected, submitting again…you get the idea.
So this goes beyond the MFA vs NYC issues – if you really want your book to make it, you have to work for it, you have to care about these weird cultural eddies, how people read, what they want to read, what you want to read, how your sentences are crafted, who your target audience is, how will you reach said audience, and before that, how will you reach, say, a book buyer, reviewer or a magazine editor who might then lend a hand to making your book a success? The answer, if you’re a poet and realistic is, even if you do all the right stuff, your book is unlikely to sell more than a thousand copies. Ten thousand is considered super successful in the poetry world, although it’s considered a huge flop in, say, technical publishing or even fiction. Selling even a thousand copies means lots of work on your part: traveling for readings, probably on your own dime, asking people for blurbs and reviews, and still, of course, you must get lucky (say, a feature on a big radio program or a moment in the spotlight of one of the bigger media web sites.) But before you roll your eyes and complain about how hard you’re working and how few books you’ve sold, think: What else can I do?
I want to really do everything I can for The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, because it’s a personal book to me, about my own childhood, the environmental issues I care about, about family, but also I think it’s the best thing I’ve written yet. I want to work for this book to make it the best it can be, so as I finish polishing up the MS for Mayapple I’m already thinking: what else can I do? Snip a poem here, write another line there. Send it to a few trusted friends to look it over. Then, the next steps: reach out to bloggers, contacts at literary magazines, librarians? Spend a bit of my own money on advertising or publicity? Whether it’s making better marketing material (as per the command of the publicist…) or spending more time in advance planning readings, updating your web site or dipping your toes into a new social media network, ask yourself what you’re willing to do, not for yourself or your own career, but in service of your book. Poets, what else can we do? (Suggestions welcome in comments!)
I have to admit that I started reading this book, published by n+1 Magazine, thinking I would hate it (though I’ve always liked n+1). First of all, I believe that “NYC vs MFA” is a false binary – there is no either, or, sometimes there’s both, or neither, or something in addition to…you get the point. And some of the essays were annoyingly out of touch and grating (um, people complaining about how fast they spent their quarter-of-a-million book advances…really?) but some I had some surprising “I have a lot in common with them” or “I really like these people” moments as well. The other response I’ll talk about in Part II of this post, but it has something to do with the “what else can I do?” question in regards to marketing books.
First of all, Tom Spanbauer is an amazing human, and all his little “in between” pieces (also in the “in-betweens” are writers like Meghan O’Rourke and Sloane Crosley) are worth reading and paying attention to – in some cases, more than the essays. There was also a shoutout from an Iraq war vet, Matthew Hefti, to the kind of online, friendly-to-folks-in-the-military program I taught in, National University’s MFA program, because – hey, getting an MFA from remote is hard, getting it while fighting in another country is even harder. Respect.
Eric Bennett’s “The Pyramid Scheme” contained some subject matter I’m very interested in – a bit of investigation of the Cold War era of CIA support for places like the Iowa Workshop, Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, and others. I wanted to immediately have coffee with him and then read his thesis. (Is this the equivalent of an intellectual crush? An intellectual crush, then.)
Melissa Flashman’s essay, “How to Be Popular,” contained the tidbit that she had worked at Luminant briefly during the dot-com boom. Me too, I thought! I wondered if I actually worked with her? Then she became a cool-spotter with trends and then did the same with books. Much hipper than my “became a middle manager at some large software company and then quit and became a poet” trajectory. The essay is fun to read, even if you haven’t worked at Luminant or been a trend-spotter.
“Nine Lives” by Lynne Martin was one of my favorite essays, because it was so fascinating to read about the work that is involved in publicizing books. “Etsy that shit out,” she explains, because most of the people getting the publicity packets are apparently 21-year-old girls. Message received. Hey, I’m still a 12-year-old girl at heart – I like stickers and clever packaging/stationary and pens that smell like cupcakes, so, I think “Etsy that shit out” is a good strategy. (Separately, but relatedly, there is another essay about a writer who, during her spare moments of boredom during her MFA, put some cards she had made in her downtime up on Etsy and got an order of 16,000 from Anthropologie. So, you know, that’s how she’s paying her student loans.)
Also interesting: a surprisingly charming and self-deprecating interview with Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, and the essay by Alexander Chee. On the ick factor side: a surprisingly “I’m okay with sexual harassment in the classroom” sort of essay on Gordon Lish (balanced by Tom Spanbauer’s dry remarks right before it) which made me remember why you should never, ever sleep with power-drunk editors, publishers, or professors, no matter what they promise you, because they are creepy, creepy slimebags, and besides, what would your mother think? Or Margaret Atwood? Any time you’re tempted to sleep with anyone to get published, ladies, just think of Margaret Atwood, shaking her head at you sadly. That’s the crap that made me not want to get an MFA in the first place. (A good commentary on that specific essay here on Bookriot: http://bookriot.com/2014/03/13/seduction-mfa-gordon-lish/) Also, the word “seduction” used in the essay’s title to reference what this creepy old dude was doing with his students makes me throw up in my mouth a little.
So, the overall message on this book from me is: read it, not just because you’re irritated by all the chatter surrounding the book, but because some of the essays are lovely writing by people you’d probably enjoy talking with, who are interesting and who know the workings of the “book biz.” A pet peeve, since this book is all by and about fiction writers, was how one essayist said the “poets all go to Phd programs” and just assumed that the only people doing MFAs were fiction writers, not poets or creative-non-fic. So, that seemed a little like, did you ignore half of your classmates at your program? Hello? Another surprise: though I’ve never lived in NYC and have an MFA and have taught in an MFA program, I identified much more strongly with the essays on the NYC side of the book than the MFA side. I like their energy, their sense of industry. Which I’ll talk about in Part II in my next post…
First of all, thanks to Rattle for featuring my poem Horoscope on their “poem of the day” feature today. It’s a super-old poem – published in 2003, probably written a few years before that – and one of the first three poems I ever had published in real, “legitimate” poetry journals (Beloit Poetry Journal and Seattle Review were the other two, and they all sort of came out at the same time.)
Second, I was supposed to read at Emerald City ComiCon for a panel on the Drawn to Marvel anthology today, but I’ve been fighting a bug all the week, and this morning was the morning it decided to really come out and play – I nearly fainted this morning getting ready, running a high fever, so decided to put the kibosh on going (even though it’s a wonderful Con and I really wanted to support the superhero anthology.) The weather has been pretty miserable lately, one of the wettest Marches on record for the Seattle area in general, which is saying something. Nevertheless, we did manage to catch a double rainbow on camera yesterday, so that was amazing!
Since the giddiness of announcing the next book, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, a few days ago, the Mayapple editors and I have been busy working and planning, mostly with the cover art. I think we’ve found something beautiful and I’ll be able to share it with you guys soon. The other thing I have to do is the terrifying part: getting blurbs. You’d think with (this makes) four books, I’d have gotten used to asking people, but I haven’t. It still makes me very nervous. And I write a lot of blurbs for other people, and hate to turn people down, so I’ve been on the other side of that question quite a bit too. Now, I’ve got to start planning, culling poems, deciding on formats and other kiddles and bits…but it’s pretty exciting that it’s really happening. There is almost no better time to work on a book than right after it’s been accepted for publication, because you’re really motivated after realizing “hey, other people are going to see this!”
OK, so here’s the official announcement I talked about a couple of posts ago: my fourth book, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, will be published by Mayapple Press in March 2015! Mayapple Press is pretty interesting in that they have published women’s speculative poetry in the past, which is a fairly unusual thing to find! Feminist AND with sci-fi leanings? It’s a pretty cool fit.
I’m excited about it. The editors are great, this is the first time I will have SPD distribution, which is cool. I’m working on getting blurbs but I already have one really nice one I’m excited to share soon, along with some possible cover art ideas!
This book is probably my most personal, as it’s about my father’s work as a contractor for Oak Ridge National Laboratories, my childhood growing up around robots (cool!) and nuclear waste (not quite as cool) and some of the environmental fallout from both Oak Ridge and Fukushima. There are persona poems, but this book is probably my most autobiographical work so far. I remember Ilya Kaminsky, when he read my first book, said “Now you must make your own fairy tales.” I feel like this book is my attempt to do that.
I will have an announcement to make soon Hopefully you will agree with me that it is good news. I am always happiest when there is a flurry of activity around beginning or completing something, I think.
I’ve been reading “Conversations with Flannery O’Connor,” which is now out of print and hard to find, even in libraries and used bookstores, but worth reading. Flannery reminds me a bit of Frida Kahlo in that she puts a bit of herself, her view of herself, into her work – her stories are full of disfigurements and ailments, women who are deaf, women who have wooden legs, people with strange grotesque appearances. Of course, because of her lupus, she herself walked with crutches and it affected her appearance, so she was highly aware of not fitting in, of not being “normal.” Her continual focus on the Southern grotesque is a bit like Frida’s self-portraits – full of her own distorted imagery of her own body. She is imperfect, cantankerous, the language she used sometimes frightening, a Catholic who nonetheless wasn’t impressed with Lourdes except by the germs, by a visit to the Vatican, and who thought most nuns and priests undereducated. (I got a real sense of her personality from her collected letters, easier to find and also worth reading.)
So, her lupus set upon her fairly severely after a trip to the writer’s residency at Yaddo, requiring multiple hospitalizations, experimental drugs, home injections, and later, the crutches. Nevertheless, she didn’t let this affect her work schedule, her work socializing, even. Flannery went and gave readings and taught classes as much as she could, and when she was not quite as able, she hosted writers at her house. (A young writer from Atlanta said of her: “She’s certainly not a hermit, though she’s not an extrovert, either.” Sound familiar?)
Flannery is a bit of a ghost of mine, she haunts me. Flannery was a good writer at a very young age, having a good deal of success in her early twenties, befriending important people, even at that age aware that her work was good and deserved to be treated that way. She turned down a book prize’s publishing contract because they wanted to change her work – that took guts. Despite getting as much treatment for her lupus as the time and technology and her money could allow, she was dead at 39, a year younger than I am now.
Here are a couple of quotes I particularly enjoyed from “Conversations.” Most of them I have never seen before, on the web or anywhere else.
“There has been no interesting or noble struggle,” she said of her life. She lived with her mother and helped raise peacocks and fancy chickens and ducks, which supplemented her income (which increased as she got older) not mostly made up of book royalties but fellowships, awards, and grants. She used a lot of the money on hospital trips. She complained frequently of the low sales of her books, about bad reviews or (what she felt were) ignorant or misguided reviews.
Her advice to new writers? “start reading and writing and looking and listening. Pay less attention to yourself than to what is outside you, and if you must write about yourself, get a good distance away and judge yourself with a stranger’s eyes and a stranger’s severity.” (Probably still good advice, esp. for young college kids.)
Here’s a saucy description of the “average reader.”
Flannery: “The average reader, however, is a good deal below average. People will say with considerable satisfaction, “Oh, I’m an average reader” when the fact is they never learned to read in the first place, and probably never will.”
On “the writer’s temperament:”
“People seem to surround being-a-writer with a kind of false mystique, as if what is required to be a writer is a writer’s temperament. Most of the people I know with writers’ temperaments aren’t doing any writing.” (And remember, she was friends with such famous writing temperaments as Robert Lowell!)
As for her disease, in an interview, she said “the disease is of no consequence to my writing, since for that I use my head and not my feet.”