Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame: Wendell Berry’s Remarks

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Wendell Berry delivers his remarks on Jan. 28, 2015 at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. Photo by Bianca Spriggs

On the evening of January 28, 2015, renowned Kentucky writer, Wendell Berry, was inducted as the first living writer into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame alongside deceased writers, Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005), Guy Davenport (1927-2005), Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960), Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007), and Jim Wayne Miller (1936-1996). The Carnegie Center is pleased to release Berry’s remarks below with permission of the author. These remarks may not be published in print form unless written permission is granted by the Carnegie Center. It may be republished on the web only if the publisher includes credit and a live link to www.carnegiecenterlex.org.

KENTUCKY WRITERS IN KENTUCKY
by Wendell Berry

In the spring of 1964,Tanya and I and our children had been living in New York for two years. When my work in the city ended that spring, we loaded ourselves and our belongings into a Volkswagon beetle with a luggage rack on top and took the New Jersey Turnpike south. We were returning to Kentucky — to settle, as it turned out, permanently in my home country in Henry County. On my part, this homecoming cost a good deal of worry. Just about every one of my literary friends had told me that I was ruining myself, and I was unable entirely to disbelieve them. Why would a young writer leave a good job in New York, where all the best artistic life and talent had gathered, to go to Kentucky?

There are no uncontrolled plots” in a person’s life. I have no proof that I would not have done better to stay in New York. But I see that in retrospect my story has gained the brightening of a certain comedy. When I turned my back supposedly on the best of artistic life and talent in New York and came to Kentucky, half believing in my predicted ruin, who was here? Well, among many dear and indispensable others: James Still, Harlan Hubbard, Harry Caudill, Guy Davenport, and Gene Meatyard. All of them I came to know and, I hope, to be influenced by. In 1964 also Thomas Merton was living in Kentucky. I can’t say that I knew him as I knew the others, but I had read The Sign of Jonas when it was published in 1953. Tanya and I, by courtesy of Gene Meatyard, visited Merton twice at Gethsemani and to live here was to feel his presence and his influence. I met Harriet Arnow. in, I think, 1955 when I first encountered Mr. Still, at the only writer’s conference I ever attended. Many years later I met her again, spoke to her and shook her hand, remembering from then on her eyes and the testing look she gave me. No book more confirms my native agrarianism than The Dollmaker.

My point is that in 1964, for a young writer in Kentucky and in need of sustenance, sustenance was here. In the fifty years that have followed, the gathering in Kentucky of Kentucky writers has grown much larger. It would take me a while just to call their names: old friends, allies, influences, members, permitting me to be a member, of an unending, enlightening, entertaining, comforting, indispensable conversation. Hy further point is that in 2015, for an old writer in Kentucky and in need of sustenance, sustenance is here.

Of literary or writerly life in Kentucky I have no worries. It seems lively, various, and dispersed enough to continue, which is all I can presume to ask.

My worries begin when I think of the literary life of Kentucky in the context of the state of Kentucky: a commonwealth enriched by a diversity of regions, but gravely and lastingly fragmented by divisions that are economic, social, cultural, and institutional. These divisions have given us a burdening history of abuse — of land abuse but also and inevitably of the abuse of people, for people and land cannot be destroyed or conserved except together. We all know our history of social and cultural division, from the Indian wars of the 18th Century to legal discrimination against homosexuals in the 21st. And we know how our many divisions, beginning in the lives of persons, become fixed in public and institutional life.

Some public entities that ought to be divided are tightly meshed together. I mean, above all, the intimacy between state government and wealthy industries. Otherwise, the state’s institutions and organizations appear to be islands divided, and often in themselves further divided, by specialties, departments, interests, and sides. Where and when might one find a political-industrial-academic­conservationist dialogue on any issue of land use? When aggrieved citizens gather on the pavement in front of the Capitol to express their grievances, who knows it? Who listens? Who replies?

So far as I can tell, those are rhetorical questions, useless except to suggest the extent and seriousness of the fragmentation of our commonwealth. This fragmentation is made possible, and continually made worse, by a cloud of silence that hovers over us. We have in this state no instituted public dialogue, no forum in which a public dialogue could take place.

This public silence ought to be a worry especially to writers. What is is the effect or fate, Kentucky writers may ask, of Kentucky books devoted to urgent public issues — Night Comes to the Cumberlands or Lost Mountain or Missing Mountains or The Embattled Wilderness? That is not quite a rhetorical question, but the answer is not obvious or easy.

Kentucky writers write books of several kinds, and they publish them, sometimes in Kentucky, but none of their books contributes to a public conversation in Kentucky about books or anything else — in spite of our need for it, and in spite of the schools and other institutions that would benefit from it and could also contribute to it.

We have, besides several private presses, the University Press of Kentucky which publishes sixty books every year, many of them of interest or concern specifically to Kentuckians. According to Steve Wrinn, editor of the Press, “many” of these books are bought, read, and appreciated by the people of Kentucky. And yet of those books, very few will be reviewed here. The Courier-Journal, to name one case in point, is suffering near-fatal typophobia, and publishes no book reviews not piped in from U.S.A. Today.

And so we can say that we have in Kentucky a sufficiency at least of writers of books, publishers of books, and readers of books. And yet when a Kentucky book is published it enters into a public silence, similar of course to such silences in other states, but in origin and character peculiarly our own. This is a problem that relates immediately to the hope for a sustainable and sustaining human culture in Kentucky. Such a culture, which we must hope for and work for, will depend and thrive upon our diversity of regions, and upon conversation among them. In my long conversation with Gurney Norman, he and I have often spoken as from opposite ends of the Kentucky River watershed. My long conversation with Ed McClanahan has gone back and forth across the hump of northern Kentucky, from two different countries. For me, these dialogues of friendship transcending regional differences have been indispensable sources of instruction and delight. I can’t imagine myself without them. Kentucky writers who see their placement here as a shared opportunity and a shared burden may still shape among themselves sustaining friendships and alliances. l hope they do.

These are thoughts that have come to me as a writer in Kentucky, in the United States, in the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century, perhaps at the end of the age of literacy. What might be the use of the role of writers in such a place in such a time? I will say that writers now, as never before, must keep aware that literacy is their trade, until now a trade of supreme importance. Much that we now have that is of greatest value has come to us from books. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights — just to hint at an immeasurable abundance — have come to us from books and from readers of books. To keep our heritage viable and transmissible will require capable writers of books, capable readers of books, and a capable culture of literacy, however small it may have to be.

The survival of literacy in an age of illiteracy may require us to remember how physical, how much of the senses, the life of literacy is. By putting down letters in substantial ink onto a substantial surface for many centuries, we have been making words and then sentences. Putting down the letters, we have felt in our fingers and hands and forearms their shapes and the shapes of the words they make and their flowing together into sentences. We have watched as our hands have done this. We have read by seeing what we have written. As we have written, we have been hearing, at least in our minds, the sounds of our words and sentences. We have been making what Ivan Illich called “sounding pages.” If we read aloud what we have written, our breath carries our words into the air. We feel and almost taste the sounds as we shape them with our tongues, teeth, and lips. Writing may be the most completely sensuous of all the arts. How far it can be removed from bodily presence and from the bodily presence of people together, speakers and hearers in a settled community, and still function as language is a lively question.

Insofar as it involves language, literacy is communal. Insofar as it depends upon reading, Ivan Illich was right in seeing that it depends also upon “private space,” which is to say solitude, and “periods of silence.” I have been depending on and quoting from Illich’s book, In the Vineyard of the Text, in which he made a beautiful analogy: For a reader “to face a book,” preparing to read, is like sitting in a Gothic church in the dark, looking at a window that seems only a part of a wall. And then the dawn comes. The light passes through the window, brightening the colors and the forms of a story.

Kentucky Author Spotlight: Jason Sizemore

Jason Sizemore is a writer and editor who lives in Lexington, KY. He owns Apex Publications, an SF, fantasy, and horror small press, and has been nominated three times for the Hugo Award for his editing work on Apex Magazine. Stay current with his latest news and ramblings via his Twitter feed handle @apexjason or website.

Check out my interview with Jason and an excerpt from his collection of short stories, “Irredeemable,” below:

 

Sizemore Jason 2014 Irredeemable

Yellow Warblers (an excerpt)
by Jason Sizemore

Golden rays of morning sunlight filtered through the single glass windowpane, illuminating an elderly man sitting quietly on a cushioned pew, head bent in prayer. His trembling hands held an ancient pair of reading glasses with lenses so marred and scratched it was a wonder he could see anything through them. Outside, a yellow Kentucky warbler sang joyfully, welcoming the warm spring breeze blowing in from the south and the pale green leaves covering the Appalachian countryside.

“Amen,” the old man said aloud, finishing his prayer. He stretched out his arthritic, tired legs. Both knees popped like the BB gun he had used in his younger days to shoo away the hungry crows from his garden. He grimaced at the sound–a constant reminder of his age–and at the pain that was his daily companion. Something told him, perhaps it was the Lord whispering to him, to enjoy the warm season. Come this time next year, his old legs wouldn’t be much use to him anymore.

A silence enveloped the church valley. The yellow warblers hushed. The blowing wind stopped and the air grew still. A chill spread across the old man’s body. He’d lived long enough to know the way of the spirits, to listen when they shouted across the heavens to warn the other side of danger.

Outside, a small alien paused at the foot of the steps. It glanced upward at the white-painted spire that held the brass bell used for calling the congregation on Sunday mornings. The broad leaves of a tall sycamore shadowed the church from the midday sun, giving protection and comfort. The alien climbed the nine wooden steps up to the doorway and slipped through the ornate entrance. Angels and demons welcomed it inside.

The alien moved with a grace befitting its slender build and smooth, alabaster skin. The old man had seen one of these before. A Shadow, they’d called it. It had been…what…twenty-three years since last he’d seen one? But there it was, no mistaking. Those large almond eyes in an oval, slightly humanoid face. No mouth. Skin that resembled the plastic of his sister’s childhood dolls. Shadows wore no clothes, nor did they demonstrate modesty, avarice, or lust. The man wondered if the Shadows had succeeded in the Garden where man had failed.

Many other thoughts crossed his mind as the alien walked forward. He watched as it touched the back of each pew with padded white fingers. It made little noise, no perceptible sounds of breathing, and even the sound of its bare feet slapping against the hardwood floor was muted, like feathers falling from the sky.

The old man stood up. After all, this was the Lord’s House and he had a duty to perform. “Hello,” he said. “I’m Preacher Jeremiah Jones.”

The Shadow paused. Those big, strange eyes stared back at Jeremiah and then at the old wooden cross hanging from the stucco wall behind the pulpit. A moment of worry passed through the preacher’s bones. Worry fueled by the deadly sin of pride. The cross had been in the church for 300 years; a true artifact, handmade to perfection and passed down through the protective custody of thirty-one preachers at Harlan Baptist Church. He often considered it divine, almost in the same sense the Roman Church had once believed in the miraculous power of objects such as grails and ancient shrouds. It didn’t take the awestruck presence of a Shadow to convince him of the power of the cross that hung at his back each and every Sunday morning during his sermon.

“I am…John.”

 

Kentucky Author Spotlight: Jason Howard

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Jason Howard is the author of A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music, co-author of Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal, and editor of the forthcoming anthology The Women We Love. He is the editor of Appalachian Heritage Magazine and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The Louisville Review, Sojourners, Paste and on NPR.

Facebook: jasonkylehoward
Twitter: @jasonkylehoward

Facebook: appalachianheritagemagazine
Twitter: @AppHeritage

When did you become the new editor for Appalachian Heritage magazine? 

I became editor in November 2013.

Why did you consider this position something you’d be interested in?

I’d been a reader of Appalachian Heritage for a long time. When I was growing up, my grandmother always had issues lying around, and when she died ten years ago, I came across those old editions, and still have them. So I knew and respected the magazine’s great history, but I also had a vision of where it could go—where I wanted to take it in terms of content, format and design.

I have a lot of experience in editing—I’ve worked for a national magazine, an online literary magazine, an indie publisher, a nonprofit and a small business. And of course I’ve edited and given feedback to writers in workshops and master classes and at conferences, and to friends in more informal settings. I love the editing process, especially working with writers and having a dialogue to improve the piece at hand. I also saw that this job would dovetail nicely with my own writing career—that it would feed, rather than subsume, my own creative writing.

What’s living in Berea like? 

I’ve lived here for almost six years, and it’s a great place to be based. I usually tend towards a larger town or city, but Berea has won a big chunk of my heart. We have a thriving, active arts community—writers, musicians, visual artists, crafters, dancers—and there’s always something going on. I love how the college contributes to the intellectual and spiritual life of the town, and that there’s diversity on many different levels, including a good-sized LGBT population. My partner and I are pretty settled here at the moment. We bought our first home together four years ago, an old Craftsman-style house built in 1920, so we’ve had fun—and a bit of heartache, of course—working on it, painting, having ceilings redone and the like. It never ends. Anyone who owns an older home knows what I’m talking about.

Can you tell us a little bit about AH in terms of background?

Appalachian Heritage has a long history. Poet Albert Stewart founded the magazine in 1973, and it was published for years at Alice Lloyd College and then Hindman Settlement School. It’s been at Berea College since 1985, and from its earliest years the magazine published the luminaries of Appalachian and Southern literature like Harriette Arnow, James Still, Jim Wayne Miller, Nikki Giovanni. Appalachian Heritage has also a place where many writers have gotten their start. Silas House, for instance, was first published in Appalachian Heritage in 1995.

What/who does AH publish? 

We look for high-quality, imaginative work from both established and emerging voices. Although we publish primarily fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry, we also include the occasional piece of drama and writing for young adults. Each issue also includes a craft essay, book reviews and visual art. Our submission guidelines say we look for good writing “from Appalachia and beyond,” because I see Appalachian literature as a living thing, one that is not constrained by geographic borders. It’s more about spirit than anything else, and so the writing we publish is either rooted in or captures the spirit of the region. With this approach I’m aiming to expand the notion of Appalachia—and what it means to be Appalachian—and to showcase the region in a more complex way.

Writers we have recently published include Maurice Manning, Sonja Livingston, Fenton Johnson, Karen Salyer McElmurray, Neela Vaswani, Michael Henson and Ron Houchin.

What can readers expect moving forward? Are you going to stay in print or expand?

When I came on as editor, my first decision was to revamp much of the magazine. I felt that it was in need of an update, especially in terms of format and design. For years the magazine had relied on a “featured author” format, in which the majority of each issue centered on a particular established author, and I decided to move away from that. I wanted to put new creative work front and center, to make the magazine a destination for readers—and writers—who craved the finest contemporary literature. As a creative nonfiction writer, it was important to see an emphasis on that genre, in addition to fiction and poetry. I also added an interview with a notable writer or artist to each issue, as well as a craft essay, in which an author writes on something specific about the writing process or the writing life. The craft essays in particular have become very popular with subscribers and readers. The look and feel of the magazine is also different. I spent a lot of time working with a designer to come up with a fresh cover design, a logo and word mark, as well as an entirely new interior layout.

As for the future, we will remain a print-based publication, but we’re working on an online component that I hope to unveil later this year. I’ve been collaborating with a web designer on a new website that will include material to entice casual browsers and new readers, as well as special features for subscribers. So stay tuned for that.

How do we submit our work?

We accept online submissions only via Submittable, and our submissions guidelines are listed on our website: www.appalachianheritage.net. Our submissions period runs from 1st August to the end of February, and our response time is generally three to five months.

How do we subscribe? 

We offer one and two-year subscriptions for both individuals and institutions, starting at $30 a year. Readers can subscribe online via our website.

Tell us some about A Few Honest Words.

I love music, and I’ve always been fascinated by how a particular place or culture influences the music that people create. A Few Honest Words was really born out of that obsession. I wanted to explore how and why Kentucky has produced so many great musicians—and how they have taken the sounds and stories of Kentucky out into the wider world. It’s a collection of profiles of contemporary roots musicians, and I was lucky enough to get some great people on board— Dwight Yoakam, Naomi Judd, Nappy Roots, Jim James, Joan Osborne, Matraca Berg, Ben Sollee, Daniel Martin Moore, and others.

My watchword throughout the writing process was diversity—I wanted diversity in musical genre, race, gender and geographic location, as well as the kind of career the musician had. I wanted some famous musicians, of course, but I also wanted to include emerging talents, as well as a couple of unknowns, artists who had carried the tradition forward by making music in their local pubs, churches and on front porches.

When was the moment you knew this was a book you had to write?

I think I was preparing to write this book my whole life. I’m an only child, and I grew up spending a lot of time reading and also listening to records from my father’s collection. I discovered The Beatles, Ray Charles, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash and loads of other roots artists—and Kentucky artists in particular. I was born in 1981, and so many artists I heard on country radio were from Kentucky—The Judds, Dwight Yoakam, Patty Loveless, Keith Whitley—and everyone around me felt a special connection to them because of that. When I moved to Washington, D.C. to go to university and work after graduating, I took those sounds with me—that was one of the ways I stayed in touch with Kentucky. After my first book came out—Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal, which I co-wrote with Silas House—all of those musical voices just seemed to want to be heard. And it was also the perfect antidote after Something’s Rising and the heaviness of writing about mountaintop removal mining. Thinking about all this great music was very hopeful.

What was your favorite research-related discovery while writing? 

I’ve interviewed a lot of people since I started writing seriously about eleven years ago—musicians, writers, politicians, activists, even Yoko Ono. I’m pretty experienced at the art of the interview. But I was amazed at something that happened in every single interview I conducted for this book. It didn’t matter where we were—and I interviewed people in Nashville, Brooklyn, Boston, LA, Louisville and at a greasy spoon truck stop off of I-75—or how long the people had been gone from Kentucky, but we immediately fell into a shorthand, like we had known each other for a long time. There was no small talk about the weather or traveling, but an instant, engaged conversation—and that all had to do with where we were from, with the fact that Kentuckians apparently have a common language and bond that allows the guard to come down. I wrote one of these scenes into the book—the opening of the chapter on Dwight Yoakam. We’re in his office, high above Sunset Boulevard, with a stunning panorama of LA and the Hollywood Hills and Griffith Observatory, and within minutes of meeting we were talking about Loretta Lynn and quoting lines from the film Coal Miner’s Daughter.

Which essay was the most difficult to pin down?

I really wanted Naomi Judd in the book, because in many ways I think she—along with Loretta, of course—is one of the matriarchs of Kentucky music. But there has been so much written about her over the years, and the challenge was to find and say something that was fresh. I tried to do that by anchoring it in what might be familiar to some readers—her backstory—while offering some new observations about her as a songwriter, creating her public image, and life offstage.

Where can we buy your book?

I always try to steer people to indie bookshops, especially The Morris Book Shop, The Wild Fig Bookstore and Carmichael’s Bookstore.

What does your writing process look like? Any rituals that ensure literary gold? Rewards system?

It’s slow—I’m typically a slow writer. A lot of times I will begin writing from a specific detail—rather than a moment or event—to enter the story and get my juices flowing. Sometimes what I start with ends up being the beginning of the piece, but just as often it’s doesn’t and might end up instead falling somewhere in the middle. If the piece at hand requires research, I allow myself a lot of time to immerse myself in the subject. A lot of what I write is based on memory and personal experience, so I spend some time pondering that and reentering those moments.

I do my best writing in the mornings—ironic, as I’m not a morning person by nature. I need quiet—no music or anything, because I’m a musician and am easily distracted by chord progressions and arrangements—and a good cup of tea. I’m also a ritual-oriented person, and one of my customs is to observe teatime each afternoon. I make myself a cuppa, eat a couple of biscuits, and allow myself time to be still. It’s very restoring. I also like having one of our two dachshunds at my feet or in my lap.

Do you have a system for arranging essays?

It all depends on the manuscript, but in general I would say that my system is based more on intuition and feeling than anything else. I pay close attention to subject matter and theme, as well as form and voice, asking myself if there is a flow, if the manuscript has movement. I tend to compare it to making a mixtape—one wouldn’t really want four fast songs and then four slow songs—so I try to aim for a bit of variety.

How do you choose who you want to write about?

I just pay attention to both my obsessions and my inner life. I often find that if I’m fixated on something at the moment that it can make for interesting writing material—not always, but usually. Our obsessions also provide a good window into the self, which is perfect for creative nonfiction writers. But more generally, I also think it’s important to move through the world with intention and awareness—to always pay attention to what’s around us.

Do you work towards a collection or does a collection manifest after you’ve written for a few years?

I’ve done both. A Few Honest Words started with a concept, and so everything I wrote was automatically geared toward serving that main theme of contemporary Kentucky roots music. But with the collection that I’m currently working on, it was the opposite—I began writing individual essays, and after a finishing a few I realized that there was a theme of exile running through them, and that I had been subconsciously working on a collection.

What is your favorite part of the publishing process? Least favorite?

I love revision for some reason. It’s often the most difficult part of the writing process, but it’s also the most rewarding. I enjoy the challenge of dissecting the essay, of evaluating what works and doesn’t, of throwing out shopworn language or metaphors and trying for something more fresh, more lyrical. I’m a perfectionist by nature, which can be a big issue for writers and has been for me. For years I’ve struggled with perfectionism on the first go—I’ve had to do a lot of work to embrace Anne Lamott’s concept of giving yourself permission to write “shitty first drafts.” But I’m getting better at turning off my inner editor as I’m writing the first draft. My least favorite part is opening Word and seeing that blank page. I’ve learned to start writing immediately or I run the risk of becoming intimidated. I have a quote from James Thurber on an index card over my writing desk that reads, “Don’t get it right, get it written,” and I’ve found a lot of freedom in that statement.

How do you get feedback on essays?

I have a few trusted readers that I can rely on to give me good, constructive feedback. Sometimes I need an overall opinion—a general what did you think?—but often times I have more specific questions in mind when I approach readers. Are the metaphors working? Does this section do everything it needs to? Is the opening compelling? It’s so important to have good readers in your life.

Favorite writing utensil? 

Nothing really original—a trusty Moleskine notebook to take notes and jot down ideas and observations, a good pen—lately I’ve been fond of Stabilo art pens—and then my laptop. If I’m traveling, then it’s my iPad, which I’ve gotten comfortable writing on.

How hard is it these days to start and maintain a career as an essayist?

It’s a great time to be a creative nonfiction writer. The genre is booming—there are lots of good literary magazines out there that are completely focused on or emphasize quality CNF, and book publishers are looking for good CNF. But like any other artistic genre, it requires study and practice and diligence. I often teach master classes and workshops, and I’m always telling my students that in order to be a writer one must also be a voracious reader. I’m always surprised by how many so-called writers don’t read. Reading is as good a place to start as any.

What are you currently working on? 

I just finished editing an anthology that will be out in spring 2015. It’s titled The Women We Love, and it explores the relationship between gay men and significant women in their lives. It includes new and collected work from the world’s finest gay authors—including Michael Cunningham, Mark Doty, Edmund White, and Hilton Als—on notable women like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Virginia Woolf, and Nina Simone, as well as mothers, grandmothers, sisters, friends, and even a childhood librarian. Talk about fun to put together—I got to spend a couple of years approaching and working with many of these authors on their new pieces, as well as researching and reading a lot of essays, poems, interviews and letters from these authors on their favorite women.

I’m also working on an essay collection centered on the theme of exile. I’m fascinated by what it means to be an exile—and how one becomes an exile—and so far the essays examine being separated from and haunted by place, family, religion and sexuality. For example, one of the essays is titled “Bastards and Ghosts”—after a passage in Vladimir Nabokov’s great memoir Speak, Memory—and focuses on the love-hate relationship we all have with where we’re from, how place can form and damage us. The essays are also inspired by my love of history, of England, of music, of female icons. I’m having a lot of fun playing with voice and form—in this collection I have memoir and personal essays, but also meditative and lyric essays, which rely on imagery and poetic language rather than necessarily action, all from varying points of view.

 

Writers Toolkit: Online Blogs for Writers

I have a personal running joke that the best way to get published is to publish a book about how to get published. That said, the resources for writers online are innumerable, particularly in the “blogosphere.” I think it’s a good idea for writers to keep a blog, or live journal, of their process, their publications, their challenges and triumphs. Blogs for writers can range from more formal advice to completely personal, interactive, and confessional. Below are a few of my favorites! So think of this particular blog entry as the gift that keeps on giving! And hey, perhaps if you’re inspired to start your very own writer’s blog, make sure you check out the forthcoming Winter catalogue for the ‘Blogging for Beginners’ class led by Bronson O’Quinn.

Query Shark:  Janet Reid, literary agent, basically dismantles letters from prospective fiction writers.

Writer Unboxed: Run by two novelists who offer their observations and analysis as to what makes for a successful narrative.

Baroque in Hackney: A poetry, arts, and culture focused blog by author Katy Evans-Bush.

Chuck Sambunchino: A Carnegie Center Books-In-Progress regular, Chuck has a national reputation with Writers Digest for being the go-to guy when it comes to snagging a literary agent!

Poor Rude Lines: John Fields observations on poetry.

The Renegade Writer: Ever thought of making a living as a freelance writer? This blog’s for you!

Writing for Kids (While Raising Them): This blog is run by a mom and children’s book author, Tara Lazar.

Poetry on the Brain: “…detours through neuroscience and contemporary poetry”

Men with Pens: Articles upon articles upon articles of successful advice and tips on content-writing and freelance writing.

KY Author Spotlight Guest Blogger: Ada Limon

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On Location: Teaching Creative Writing in Buenos Aires

Most professional writers are aware that their skill-set, unique as it is, doesn’t always translate into a steady job. We roll up our sleeves and raise our hands for any strange and lucky promise of employment that comes our way. And we generally don’t do just one job. We do many jobs, and most of them at the same time. Working writers tend to be, for lack of a better word, vagabonds.

Perhaps that’s why, when the Queens University of Charlotte asked me to join the faculty for their MFA in Creative Writing: Latin American Program, I jumped at the chance. What could be more exciting for a vagabond than joining other vagabonds to teach Masters candidates in an entirely different hemisphere? A few months later, with a suitcase full of books, printouts of my prepared lectures, and decent walking boots, I left for Buenos Aires.

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The way the program is structured is brilliant. It begins with a two-week intensive residency in a Latin American city—in our case Buenos Aires—and continues with regimented distance learning exchanges for the rest of the semester. In those two weeks the program demands everything of you: full immersion in a new country and full immersion in your students’ lives and their work.

While I had done a great deal of online/distance creative writing teaching before, I had never participated in a two-week intensive residency. When I arrived, after 24-hours of flight time, having had only fits and starts of shut-eye, I walked into the über-contemporary hotel lobby and immediately met the Program Director, the Program Coordinators, and a few of the students. I had barely learned to stand on my Latin American sea legs and already the MFA ship was setting sail. My partner and I (he wisely came along for the Fernet and the horse racing) quickly found coffee and medialunas and the trip began in earnest.

That evening, after a much-needed nap, we met all the students in the hotel lobby and walked to dinner. Amidst trying to recall words in Spanish, and making sure I was ordering the right Malbec, the night unfolded in a blur of conversation about what we all love most: words. I’d say that we could have been anywhere, but that’s not true. What made the night delightfully psychedelic and memorable was that we were not anywhere; we were in Buenos Aires. We talked poems and novels and memoirs until late in the evening. I remember teetering on my high-heeled black boots in the midnight winter air talking about Alex Lemon’s memoir, Happy, with a student who lived in Minneapolis. So many worlds and words seemed to be colliding in the up-at-all-hours, frenetic city, and this was just the first night.

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Over the two weeks that followed, there’d be oh so many more of those late night conversations, or breakfast conversations, or on-our-way-for-empanadas conversations, or whispered standing-in-the-middle-of-the-Recoleta (the famous cemetery where Evita was buried) conversations. The truth is, the conversation went on for two straight Argentine weeks. That was something I wasn’t prepared for. It seemed like the sheer fact of being tumbled together in an altogether new location ignited all these new ideas about literature and writing.

After a field trip out of the city to an estancia of parrot-filled trees, we found ourselves huddled together around an old fashioned furnace sipping tumblers full of inky Malbec. I suddenly remembered that, in my lecture the day before—about “Location” and the current crisis of place in contemporary writing given the fact that so much of our lives are lived online—I had forgotten to tell them something. I forgot to say that as important as it is to describe your character’s surroundings, it was just as important to explore what is left out. For example, does the person notice the rock-strewn hillside covered with live oaks and rattlesnake grass, or for some reason, can they only notice the line of ants going up and down, over and over, on the peeling bark of the maroon manzanita? “The landscape is important,” I said, “but so is the lens.” I apologized for running out of time and not getting a chance to explore the idea of the lens. To which a young fiction writer said, “That’s okay, you’re telling us now!”

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That’s exactly how a two-week MFA residency abroad should work—all those little extraordinary moments are tied together into one epic conversation about the craft of writing. And in that conversation you realize the craft isn’t separate from your life, it doesn’t take place in the small corner of your room, but it’s woven into all of your human experiences. It’s the lens. When I was in graduate school at New York University there was a feeling of the city being as much a part of the schooling as the classes themselves. It was a gift for which I’ll gladly continue paying off my student loans. I was thrilled to know that the same sort of interaction with a new country, a new city, a new experience was still seen as a valued part of a Masters program. And though it’s more of a blur now that we’ve been back for a month or so, the emotional groundwork that often takes months to cover in a typical “brick and mortar” classroom has already been done. Which means the online exchanges come naturally. We’ve already had the important talks. We know where we’re coming from. We get each other. Heck, we’ve traveled together. What better way to build the trust it takes to start working with students on their poems?

In a book I’m reading now, How We Learn, by Benedict Carey, the author speaks to the way altering location and taking frequent breaks can actually aid in the learning process. It makes sense that we remember things better if the facts are associated with something new or unique. I know that I’ll always remember the Borges I was reading in Café Tortoni and the Natalie Diaz poem we discussed while walking the streets of Palermo. We vagabonds excel at raving about poetry in the streets of new cities. It’s our ideal way of learning and teaching.

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As the debate continues as to whether we have too many Creative Writing MFA programs, or whether we’re creating too many writers when there are too few jobs, I tend to wonder if that’s really the issue. I believe we should keep creating more readers and writers all the time; they make good, empathetic human beings. What should we do differently? Let’s remember to tell our students the only job that we’re actually training them for is, well, vagabond. And if we teach them to write well, to read well, and to travel well, their life will always have the weird and extraordinary lens of language to carry them through.

Ada Limón

Ada Limón is the author of three books of poetry, Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World, and Sharks in the Rivers. She received her Master of Fine Arts in Poetry from New York University. Limón has received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and is one of the judges for the 2013 National Book Award in Poetry. She works as a freelance writer and splits her time between Lexington, Kentucky and Sonoma, California (with a great deal of New York in between). Her new book of poems, Bright Dead Things is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in 2015.

Writers Toolkit Guest Blogger: Martha Gehringer

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Martha Gehringer retired last spring after thirty-two years of teaching writing at Transylvania University. She was a member of the community board invited by Lexington Mayor Scotty Baesler to “imagine” the Carnegie Center into being and she served on its initial board of directors. She is currently making the transition from writer teaching writing to full-time writer.

Marginalia

Margin notes; love them. I love them most when they’re handwritten, even barely legibly handwritten. I suspect I’m in the minority in this sentiment, however; I suspect most people don’t share my feelings at all. This book is ruined, they’d say, spoiled, written all over! Or ouch! I thought I did a pretty good job on this essay; how did I get a C on it! Maybe it’s because I’ve had teachers, mentors, and colleagues who were such good readers, such good people—people who treat a text with the respect owed to the person who wrote it, who know how to engage in conversation with a writer about writing, whether face-to-face or at a distance, in the margins of what he or she has written.

I’ve been a writing teacher for more than half my life and I’ve had more than a fair share of failure in this regard. I’ve been as blind as anybody to the forest for the foliage in a passage. It’s hard not to get caught in the tangle of words on the page, not to start hacking at it, looking for mistakes, marking every error and oversight (not always in red ink—sometimes green, purple, blue, black, even pencil—to break the monotony of this approach to responding to writing). We tend to tell ourselves, hey, this writer needs me to do this, needs me to shed light, make visible what she or he can’t see. Hey, wouldn’t I want someone to tell me if I had a subject-verb agreement problem? Wouldn’t I want someone to show me a wonky sentence, a misplaced modifier?

I admit, I have taken the slash and burn approach to responding to a piece of writing just because I felt I had to justify the grade I was compelled, required, to give it. I have even told myself that it’s a kindness to show a writer what she doesn’t see. I’ve even told myself, hey, it’s my job. I have also told myself it’s my responsibility to try, at least, to see the writer in the writing. I’ve made it my aim in teaching writing to empower writers, not to assault their confidence, and as a college writing center director for the majority of my professional life, I’ve seen more than a fair share of pain in the faces of writers who, well, really did (as they say) work hard on what they’d written.

Before you call me “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Mother Teresa” (both of which I have been called—to my face—by friends and colleagues) let me remind you that words in the margin can be “sticks and stones.” A testy comment, a mean remark, a put-down; those are stones. A single word in a margin can smart like the swipe of a stick. I’ve seen the welts—discouragement, frustration, exasperation, even tears. Anger too, a lot of anger.

I’m not saying that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. I’ve personally never been able to burble on about how “good” something is, when I really couldn’t, honestly, get past its distracting problems, but I do think it’s my responsibility to help the writer be a better writer. If someone comes to me for help with something she has written, I should mean to help—or I should decline the opportunity. No one is helped by a full-out beating, but anyone can benefit from full-out, respectful and positive attention.

Look back at your personal history with the margin note. One of my earliest was in a nun’s impeccable parochial school penmanship. I don’t recall which grade I was in, must have been very early on, given that the mistake I made was in a simple sentence. I was writing about a flower, a violet I remember—it must have been springtime. Meaning to write, “It is beautiful”— but being in a rush and failing to “check my work” (“Now, children, don’t forget to check your work!”) I left the “t” out of the word “it” and handed in the sentence that read: “I is beautiful.” What did Sister Somebody-or-other (I forget which grade it was) write in the margin? In red ink, probably, a very tiny, tidy note: “You sure is!”

Don’t forget to check your work, children!

Other, much later, marginalia also stands out in my recollection, the most memorable of course the hilarious (and sometimes embarrassing) dangling modifier or the dreaded double-slash (the //) which for a while, rained down in the margins of everything I wrote. I was evolving as a thinker and, of course, coming up with more and more complex thoughts I wanted to express. Problem was, I couldn’t keep up with myself so I’d unfurl the wildest so-called sentences. The teacher would always rein me in with that double- slash that took me the grammar handbook, the Warriner’s Handbook of English, Book Two, Part Four, Chapter 14: “Express parallel ideas in parallel form.” I still have that book; I consult it often.

“Parallelism” was, for a while, my middle name; in years to come, it became my forte in working with college-level writers. I remember one student, after a session in the Writing Center at Transylvania University, saying to me: “Why? Why am I just now learning about this parallelism thing for the first time—in college?! More than one former student of mine has come up to me later to thank me for making such a big deal about parallel construction, to thank me for teaching her to “express parallel ideas in parallel form.”

Student writers don’t even read the margin notes, current research tells us. They look at the grade, decide how to feel about it, maybe search for the evidence in what they’ve written to justify their success or failure in terms of the grade. Why? Maybe it’s because the margin note is not their friend. Maybe it’s because the comment was not meant to be helpful. What I am saying here, in all this going on about marginalia, is this: if someone asks for feedback on something she or he has written, try to be helpful. (OK, call me “Miss Sunshine”!) And (I know, Mother Teresa here!) apply the golden rule: comment upon other people’s writing as you would have them comment upon yours.

 

Ten Publicity Tools for Working Writers

Ten Publicity Tools for Working Writers

At this year’s Books In Progress Conference at the Carnegie Center, I sat in on a crash-course workshop run by author and self-publishing coach, Peggy DeKay, on how to self publish. The workshop included an unsurprising amount of material about becoming one’s best salesperson. Peggy adamantly declared more than once, “Your book is not your baby—it’s your business!” Given how competitive and less exclusive the publishing industry has become, it’s no wonder this is Peggy’s mantra. And judging how full her workshop was, other writers had also received the memo and wanted to know more about taking control over the success of their books.

While I believe that publishing traditionally and self-publishing can coexist peaceably, I also believe that the model of expecting a publishing house to do all the heavy lifting for you if you get picked up traditionally, is outdated. So you published a book! Now what? People can’t read it if they don’t know about it, right? I see too many talented authors and too many excellent books (particularly on the indie press circuit) languish on a shelf somewhere because writers tend to be, well, a little introverted when it comes to self-promotion, which is understandable. We want to worry about the process, the craft, the art, right? “Selling” one’s work can sort of feel like selling out. It’s not selling out to build your audience. Think of it as giving the people what they want: more of your work! One of the most rewarding aspects of being a writer is engaging with folks after they’ve read or heard your work.

Again, friendly words of advice here, no matter your mode of publication, in order to get your books in the hands of readers, making a potential booking or marketing person’s job easier to fit you into their line-up is crucial. These eleven items should take all of a day and no more than a weekend to knock out and remember, who else but you, the author, is most qualified to speak confidently about your work? If you don’t, who will?

After fifteen years of slinging books and booking gigs, I am about to hook y’all UP! I recommend that writers keep the following close by at all times. Keep hard copies if you like, but also create a “Publicity” folder on your computer’s desktop or even better—in Dropbox—for easy shareable access.

Personal Biography

Keep two types of bios on tap at all times. A brief fifty word bio and something a little longer, but no more than two-hundred words. That way, you can drag, drop, or easily tweak to fit the needs of the person who needs it.

CV or Resume

If you’re writing a resume, keep it to a page or so, certainly not more than two. If you are submitting a CV, no more than three pages. Use headers such as “Selected Publications” or “Selected Readings” if you fear you may go over. This should also include your current and past professional positions that pertain to your current artistic occupation, gigs or readings, publications, events, awards, recognitions, by the year/date. You should be keeping a calendar full of these anyway. You are keeping track of your readings, right? How about submissions? No? Oh, boy.

Spreadsheets of Readings and Submissions

Start a spreadsheet (or at least keep a running list) of when and where you are reading, who invited you, what the honorarium was, travel expenses if any, and any other pertinent notes like how many books you sold, how many people showed up. Same with submissions. If you are regularly submitting your material to journals, contests, and other outlets for publication, you will definitely need a spreadsheet to keep track of simultaneous submissions, date it took to receive an answer, what got picked up or rejected where, and when the publication dates are. Don’t forget the journal volume and page numbers.

Artist Statement

Come up with two-hundred and fifty words or so explaining your aesthetic, your process, what drives you, inspires you, and who your influences are (personal as well as professional), and how all of this shows up in your work. Be specific. Use an example or two.

Work Sample

This is going to differ depending on the medium, but you should be able to pull up 10-12 poems, 15-30 pages of prose, 10-15 images, 3-5 videos, etc. that have either been published/exhibited by a CREDIBLE publication or gallery or performance hall or whatever. Do not under any set of circumstances turn in material that is un-workshopped (and by workshopped, I don’t mean a quick spell-check, I mean revised based on the feedback of an objective audience). If it’s already been published, you know it’s suitable for public consumption. Don’t be turning in the dance routine you made up in your bedroom or the piece you wrote a month ago because you’re just really feeling that topic right now. 

Elevator Pitch of Current Project

No more than a sentence of two of what you are currently working on. Have a pitch prepared for each project. Inevitably, you are going to get that question, “What is your book about?” You should be able to say something to the effect of, “This book is a coming of age story about a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking teenager who seeks to find meaning in his life outside the parameters of conventional society.” (Also, please forgive that shameless plug for our upcoming event celebrating Catcher in the Rye!)

References

Have a list of maybe 5-7 credible people you know and have worked with or who know your work really well (NOT FAMILY MEMBERS) in mind who have already agreed that they would be willing to serve as a reference or perhaps craft a letter of reference on your behalf, especially if grant applications are on your horizon. Then, if the time comes, give them PLENTY of time so they’re not pressured to write something the night before which could strain your relationships and not do you or your work justice. Give these people a copy of your resume, your artist statement, and your elevator pitch of the project in question. Make sure you THANK THEM lots of times to let them know how appreciative you are of their time and energy spent on your behalf when they could be doing at least five-hundred other things. Keep copies of the letter, if they write one for you, and if you need them to dust it off down the road, all they have to do is change the date. Help them help you.

Headshot

Listen up, writers. Here is some tough love for you. I know we writers can be a bit vampire-y when it comes to going out in broad daylight and letting folks lay eyes on our visage. We wear a lot of black and tan and gray. We enjoy slinking around in the fringes of social circles and being all self-deprecatingly introverted when confronted about our work. But look, take $50 and spend an hour with a PROFESSIONAL photographer who will deliver to your inbox the appropriate size and resolution of a headshot or candid photo of you not looking creepy, or pixelated, or blurry, suitable for any publicity related to your book. That includes book covers, posters or flyers, newspaper articles, and websites. We live in a visual society now. Bite the bullet and get a good headshot. ESPECIALLY if you are a Kentucky author and want to be featured on this blog. Hint, hint.

Web Presence

Building a web presence is perhaps the most perplexing part of self-promotion for writers. I can’t tell you how many people I run into who fumble with and give up on websites like Facebook and Twitter. If you haven’t noticed, we live in a digital age, and if you want people to know a bit more about your personality as well as your work, having a presence on social media where people can sample your work is the best bet for not only using social media as a forum to promote your work but to also network and get to know other writers. I tend to have more exposure and secure more reading and workshop gigs because of dialogues that are initiated online. Similarly, I suggest having a website or blog where people can contact you directly. Think of it less as a website and more as an interactive resume that highlights your work. 

Start simply with a Facebook page. That’s perhaps the most accessible route to connect with other writers and let people know about upcoming events. Try your hand at Twitter, although some people may find it a bit fast-paced. And Twitter does move fast. There are some writers that really excel at navigating Twitter, but I tend to think of it as standing in the middle of the room at a party and talking to yourself while sometimes someone else happens to be listening. Personally, I prefer Instagram in particular at the moment because of the lack of language. It’s my life in images which feels so much more streamlined. I can also share those photos immediately to my Facebook page. Honestly, a regularly updated blog couldn’t hurt either. Blogs help you work out your process and let readers in on the inside track as to how you are arriving at your material.

Luckily, if all of this sounds a bit intimidating, the Carnegie Center offers an assortment of classes and one-day seminars that can help you navigate these murky web-platforms! But the people need to see your face (headshot), experience you read (video or audio file), and basically be able to access what you have to offer to see if they want to learn more.

Business Card

When I go to conferences and workshops, one of the things I’ve noticed I always forget to stock up on are my business cards! Inevitably, I meet someone who is into similar material as what I write or is doing something innovative with their work. I’m always scrambling around trying to get their number but just keeping a small stack in my bag at all times would alleviate that problem. When I do stock up, I prefer going to a place like moo.com, because the aesthetic of their cards is so chic and artsy. Perfect for something like the AWP national conference. But I also have cards for my professional positions which are a bit more conservative and work well for handing them out at workshops and readings. If you go the business card route, make sure you include your name, your email address, a phone number (Google Voice lets you create a unique number that’s not your personal number), website, and occupation: WRITER!

Let’s Eat Grandpa!: Saving Lives With the Comma

This semester, after a hiatus of four years, I took the helm again of a classroom of freshman writers. Imagine a komodo dragon adopting twenty-three little ducklings and trying to groom them for the world of scholarship and academic writing, and you just about have an idea of what my classroom sessions look like. All jokes aside, I really lucked out this semester and have some truly bright minds in this class. We have thrilling discussions about essays, podcasts, and videos, and we are learning how to use tumblr together.

Recently, they turned in their first papers. You never really know what you’re going to get with a first batch of freshman inaugural compositions, but you can rest assured that there will be a wide range of how best to approach syntax and essential grammar techniques. One of the teaching issues that continues to rear its head for me is how to teach grammar. Because as much as there is an art to the use of grammar, there is also an art to facilitating information about sentence-level issues, and teaching it in such a way that your little ducklings don’t crack off their jaws yawning.

Perhaps the main offender of all grammar errors is a card-carrying member of what we composition instructors call “lower-order concerns” because they occur at the sentence level and don’t involve the thesis statement, for example. I’m talking about the comma. Oh, the lowly, oft neglected comma plagues even the seasoned writer, especially Yours Truly. As I continue to navigate the teaching of grammar but also how my own work is published, I am so grateful for copyeditors who know their Strunk & White, because for me, the comma is always the first to fly out the window unattended. Before I dunk myself back into the grading pool, I thought now would be an excellent opportunity to refresh myself and any other interested parties on a few pertinent uses of (dunh dunh dunnnnh): the comma.

Like most of its punctual punctuation relations, the timing of a comma depends on context within the sentence. Commas are used to indicate a pause in sentence, but not a final pause, like with a period. What can I say? Commas have commitment issues. The largest confusion surrounding commas occurs when people are separating words and word groups, using commas instead of periods, commas being used to join independent clauses, starting sentences with a dependent clause, and setting off nonessential words/phrases/clauses.

Rule: Use an “Oxford comma” to separate word groups or words in a series of three or more items/objects/people, etc.

Example: All androids, aliens, and disciples of Cthulhu should make a line to the left.

In journalistic publications, the Oxford comma is often dropped, however like the age-old example of “Let’s eat Grandpa!” vs. “Let’s eat, Grandpa!” you too can prevent unnecessary casualties in your writing. Whatever you decide to do, be consistent.

 Rule: Avoid the arch-nemesis of all periods, the “run-on sentence,” by inserting a period between two independent clauses as opposed to a comma, resulting in a “comma splice.”

Don’t Do This: Every time I have a dream about Blackbeard, I wake up whistling a sea-chanty, I should probably stop eating kielbasa before bed.

Do This: Every time I have a dream about Blackbeard, I wake up whistling a sea-chanty. I should probably stop eating kielbasa before bed.

Or This: Every time I have a dream about Blackbeard, I wake up whistling a sea-chanty, so I should probably stop eating kielbasa before bed.

Or Even This: After I have a dream about Blackbeard and wake up whistling a sea-chanty, I think I should probably stop eating kielbasa before bed.

Rule: Use a comma before you use one of the FANBOYS to connect independent clauses.

This goes back somewhat to the previous rule. Remember the FANBOYS? No, they’re not a boy band, silly! They’re a collection of small articles: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so, that connect independent clauses. You can tell independent clauses because they will usually make use of a subject, verb, and express a complete thought.

Don’t Do This: I snuck in before the party and I made away with the piñata.

(No, really. That’s horrible. Don’t ever sneak in before a party and steal somebody’s piñata. Those poor children! )

Do This: I snuck in before the party, and I made away with the piñata.

(If you’re going to steal somebody’s piñata, at the very least, give it its own clause!)

Rule: Use a comma after starting a sentence with an independent clause.

I tell students to think of dependent clauses as clauses that have a charley horse and now need a little bit of help to make it to the finish line of a sentence. You can recognize a dependent clause because it starts with a transitional word like “If” or “Although” or “When.”

Example: If you don’t want to go hunting for blue gnomes with me, now’s the time to speak up.

You can also switch around the order of the clauses so the independent clause takes the lead. That way you don’t need to use a comma at all!

Example: Now’s the time to speak up if you don’t want to go hunting for blue gnomes with me.

Rule: Use a comma to set-off nonessential words, phrases, and clauses.

Don’t Do This: My girlfriend Margaret whose little brother is a werewolf said there’s a great party tonight.

Do This: My girlfriend, Margaret, whose little brother is a werewolf, said there’s a great party tonight.

I actually pulled a double-whammy on you for this one. One, you need to make sure you use a comma and an appositive comma (the comma that closes the nonessential word or phrase) when you’re using a name in this case because it’s technically nonessential, although I’m sure Margaret is very nice. But, note that the appositive comma is used to also set-off the nonessential information about Margaret’s brother who is a werewolf. Additionally, make sure that you’re using an appositive comma with more than one noun.

Example: While we were at the party, Tommy snuck into his sister’s room and swiped three items, her diary, her Marky Mark autographed photo, and a mixtape, from her nightstand.

Note the appositive comma is separating “mixtape” from “from.”

Kentucky Author Spotlight: Lynnell Edwards

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Lynnell Edwards is the author of three full-length collections of poetry, most recently Covet (Red Hen Press, 2011) and the chapbook Kings of the Rock and Roll Hot Shop (Accents, 2014). She is associate professor of English at Spalding University where she teaches writing and literature classes.

Tell us some about Kings of the Rock and Roll Hot Shop.

Kings of the Rock and Roll Hot Shop is a chapbook collection of poems I wrote while being a self-appointed “poet-in-residence” at Flame Run Glass Blowing Studio (a hot shop) and gallery owned by Brook White during the summer of 2010. Three times a week in the mornings — it was waaaay too hot to blow glass in the afternoon — I watched and asked questions while the glass blowers there worked.

When was the moment you knew this was a collection?

I had written one of the poems in the book, “Heart of Glass” several months earlier after observing Brook work, but for the first two weeks I was there​ after that, I didn’t write any poems at all. I just made notes and asked questions, learning the language, trying to get a sense of the process — both literally (how do they​do that?!) and metaphorically (there’s something more elemental here).  Once I began drafting some poems though, I realized that I probably would have enough for a chapbook — 15-20 poems.  I probably drafted about 25 poems; the final product has seventeen poems.

Did any particular research go into the collection or aspects of the poems? What was your favorite research-related discovery while writing? 

​The whole book is the result of an experiential research project — though I never did blow any glass myself. This process of immersing myself in the world of another kind of artist opened up a whole new vocabulary (and poets love new words) as well as new metaphors for understanding the process of creation.  It was very clear to me almost immediately that the elements of glass blowing, to quote the opening poem, held a lot of “hot possibility”.  I can wholeheartedly recommend this kind of experience for poets: immersing yourself in the world of another “maker” and letting yourself be open to impressions, language, and experience.

The process also forced two other good things:  it took me wholly out of the lyric impulse; there’s not a single first person poem in the collection.  And, the incredibly visual aspect of my experience forced me to experiment with the poem on the page as a way to further the exploration of the creative metaphors.  There are a couple of shaped poems in the collection.

Which poem is the black sheep of the collection?

​Because the book is so tightly thematic, I really kind of threw out the black sheep before the final editing process.  There was at one point a pretty okay poem about another team of glassblowers that I watched work at Flame Run once after hours (this is not uncommon for studios to share or exchange time on the furnace like this) but I realized it just didn’t fit.  This is really about the team at Flame Run and it was clear that this other poem didn’t fit. ​

Which poem is the oldest?

​ The last poem in the book, “Heart of Glass” was the first written; about two months prior to getting into the real process of​ observing and writing (this is sort of answered above if you want to strike this one).​

Which poem was the most difficult to pin down?

​I worked and worked and worked on “In Process” — it went from a long rambling thing to a sonnet.  I’m not sure why it gave me fits.  I was trying to say​ ​something about flawed or surplus work and Brook’s own process and it just really took a long time to figure it out.

Where can we buy your book?

​Indie bookstores, like Morris Bookshop in Lexington and Carmichael’s Books in Louisville, and of course at the Accents website: ​http://www.accents-publishing.com/books.html

What does your writing process look like? Any rituals that ensure literary gold? Rewards system?

​I’m not that disciplined about time, place, process. I do know that my most productive periods come when I get into material, a kind of “wellspring” that is really rich.  I tend to write at least three or four poems in a similar mode or about a similar topic or theme – a series of some sort.  That’s what keeps me moving.  The few times I’ve tried the “poem a day” challenges, it’s been a disaster of mediocre poems.​

Do you have a system for arranging poems?

​For a new manuscript, hard copies of the poems get laid out on the floor of my study where I can study them and think about how they like hanging out with each other. ​

How do you choose titles?

​For both books and individual poems it really varies.  My editor actually suggested the title for my second book, The Highwayman’s Wife.  For poems, if the title is something I’m having trouble with, it’s a good sign that there’s a problem with the poem. Otherwise, almost always, the title is apparent by the time I’m through with the second draft of the poem. ​

Do you work towards a collection or does a collection manifest after you’ve written for a few years?

​ In the case of this chapbook, it was a really tight, coherent process of writing the poems in a burst over about three months with a particular subject driving them.  For my three full length collections, it’s the latter.  A collection manifests itself as a result of the work I’ve done over a couple of years.

What is your favorite part of the publishing process? Least favorite?

​Most favorite: Acceptance letters! ​

​Also, looking at proposed covers for books is a lot of fun.  Least favorite: proofreading.  I start second-guessing whether ANY of the poems are any good and plus I’m a lousy proofreader.  ​

How do you get feedback on poems?

​I have some writing friends that I sometimes exchange poems with, but otherwise I don’t really get a lot of feedback. This is not necessarily intentional; I think I’d like to be able to share more work in process with a regular group, it just has never happened.  I didn’t go through an MFA program so I don’t have a lot of experience working with writing groups or even a mentor. Sometimes an editor of a journal will make a really helpful comment, though, that teaches me a lot.​

Favorite writing utensil?

These. Are. Awesome.

​I get a little nervous when I can’t find one stashed in one of my many book bags and purses.  ​

How hard is it these days to start and maintain a career as a poet?

I think the “career” part of it is what’s complicated.   If you’re looking to sustain yourself through publishing poetry and engaging in poetry-related activities (readings, teaching workshops, literary editing and publishing, grants, etc) — it’s damn hard and a lot of work.  If you have a different full time gig, then it’s hard to know under what circumstances you self-identify as poet instead of, say, non-profit director or lawyer or, whatever.  Even thought I (and lots of other other folks who mostly publish as poety) have what would seem to be a perfectly compatible sort of professional gig, say,associate professor of English, I rarely self-identify professionally as “poet.”  I would call “poet” a vocation, I think, and which suggests there’s a dedication and a vision independent of “careerism.”

 What are you currently working on? 

Buncha poems about rivers: some memoir-in-verse sort of stuff about my time living on and growing up playing on the Kentucky River and some historical/persona/documentary poems about my paternal ancestors, the McAfee brothers who settled on the Salt River in the late 18th century.  I’m convinced these two sets of poems have a life together in a manuscript — but it’s still a long way off.​

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IN THE HOT SHOP

I hope you understand
—The Verve, “Lucky Man”

All is hot possibility,
molten potential of unformed
element: fire, earth, air, water.

The crucible is ever
fired: the pipes and table
wait to shape what perfect

whole emerges with your breath.
Score the grace note of color—
pallet of birdsong, thunder,

cymbal and snare—then return
to the furnace to gather
the glass, glowing clay

of creation. Here begin
with a new and flawless globe
to hold your animate breath,

carry light and heat
beyond into the finished
world, fixed and cool.