Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Tally for 2008

Completed: About 23 poems. Drafted This Year: 18 poems, 0 essays. Submitted: 14 poems. Rejected: 11 poems. Poetry Readings: 2; Prose Readings: 1; Anthologies Appeared In: 1. Contests Entered: 2; Prizes Won: 0. Workshops/Seminars Attended: 18. Poetry Readings Attended: 9; Submissions of Book Manuscript: 2; Rejections of Book Manuscript: 1. New Books Purchased: About 20. New Friends Made: 15 to 20 (a really great year). Friends Self-Publishing First Books: 6; Friends Publishing First Books: 5; Friends Publishing Second Books: 1; Friends Making a Living at Writing: 1. I don't make a living. However, as you can see, my life is fabulously rich.

Monday, December 29, 2008

After Walter Bargen's Critique

Walter Bargen’s critique of a poem I brought to the St. Louis Poetry Center Workshop shifted my philosophy of revision. He said, You use too many words. Get it going with the first line. Make sure that in every line something happens. Shorten your sentences. Cut every word and phrase not absolutely needed. With these in mind I revised and think I improved the poem. Its first two stanzas will illustrate. See what you think:

Before:

Seekers and pilgrims leave rosaries and coins
at each of the seven grottoes engineered
like sand castles, frenzied
in conception and scale,

each begetting another, life-sized, more sensual:
a stone tent for the slumbering plaster disciples;
for the satiny skins of the plaster Pietá
a stone canopy inlaid with bottle glass and scallop shells;

After:

Seekers and pilgrims leave rosaries, coins.
The seven grottoes engineered
like sand castles, frenzied
in conception and scale,

shelter strangely sensual scenes.
Plaster disciples slumber
beneath a canopy of masonry
chased with beach glass and scallop shells,

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Instant Leper

Small mental-health tip: Never offer the information that you are a writer.

I have learned to tell strangers at bus stops or family parties that I am a webmaster, or, if I really want to hear them talk, I say I’m a teacher (not a professor). “Teacher” elicits all sorts of commentary and memories, plus the “Guess What I Teach” game. Everyone always guesses right: I’m an English teacher. I fail to see what is wrong with looking like one.

But when you tell a stranger, “I’m a writer,” you'll get frosted or flummoxed by one of these:

  • “A writer, eh? Ya know, my life could be a book. Whoo-ee! I’ll tell it to you and you can write it.”
  • “What do you write?” (Disappointment or disapproval will follow regardless of your answer)
  • “Have you ever heard of this book called (Dune, Twilight, The Lovely Bones, Ball Four)?”
  • “Have you published anywhere I might have read it?”
  • “So you get to sit home all day and write.”
  • “My daughter writes poetry. It helps so much with her depression.”
I once told a talented but unschooled writer (think Chuck Palahniuk), unemployed for two years, that Human Resources staffs were likely giving him the bum’s rush because he just had to say in his cover letter, “But what I really am is a writer.” Might as well say, “I’m a leper.”

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Token

I received this pendant, set with rubies, as a Christmas gift. Thinking highly of the giver, I decided last night to put it beneath my pillow so as to get it "in tune" with me. Before I fell asleep it gave me an idea for a set of poems. Then it woke me up after 3 hours and said, "Get up and write some poems," and gave me a first line. It also wrote a poem about itself. Whatever works in the name of creativity is all good.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

E-Books on the Rise

Check this out: There's now an alternative to Amazon.com's Kindle reading pod, and you can get it (it's a Sony) at Target. E-Books are gaining in popularity. Oprah likes the Kindle. The average Kindle buyer is 55-64 years old, believe it or not. (Younger folks read on their I-phones, apparently.) Follow the link for complete juicy details about E-Books and reading pods in the technology column at nytimes.com.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Fiction Writing Tips: The Rules of Three

Drab? Unexciting? "Shallow"? My short fiction was. As so much of it is! Why?

The questions of art are big, but the answers are small. Story writers, try these (my original discoveries):

1. Give three traits to every character, including the walk-ons.
2. Take your main characters to three distinctly different settings.
3. Have no more than three main characters.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Your Skill Set & Power Blouse

Whatever you write -- know how to write something else. That's how I got lunch with the publisher mentioned in the previous blog. I know how to write public-relations materials such as press releases. The publisher wanted me for my "skill set."All writers should be able to write more than one type of thing. I told the publisher I also knew where to send the press releases and what to do after that. Normally I hate the phrase "skill set" -- it's so 1980s "corporate." But mine works in my favor. No 1980s bow-tie power blouse is necessary.

Know-how -- in something other than creative writing -- got me the face-to-face meeting with a publisher who incidentally happened to be looking for a book ms that sounded rather like mine.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Don't Be Modest

The most overrated virtue in a writer: modesty. Especially when opportunity doesn't just knock -- it clubs you upside the head.

Last time I sent my latest book ms. out was February; the rejection (fourth) came in August. I sighed and let the manuscript rot. This past week I had lunch with a publisher. We weren't there to talk about my books, but the publisher described books the press was looking for, saying, "But who has a book like that?"

"I do," I boldly ventured for the first time in my life, "and it's finished, about 35,000 words; it has this, and this. . ." Mmmm, let me see it, said the publisher. I hate to think I almost said nothing -- out of misplaced modesty. It needed only to be printed out (pat myself on the back). Off it went into the mail today.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Get Born

Acquaintance, perhaps 20 years younger than I, has finished his first novel (writing it, not reading it), and isn't sure if it's good or saleable. He said he gave it to five friends to read. One friend read it; no word from the other four. He expressed anxiety. What I saw was a writer being born. It ain't pretty.

Picking up the forceps, I said, "Why don't you hire a professional editor to read it and give you feedback?"

He said, "But that's so counterintuitive!"

Clamping the forceps around his head, I said, "Business is counterintuitive. But business is part of writing. We can be 90 percent artist, but have to be 10 percent businessperson."

Then I decided I didn't have the right to yank on him; he might yet be 10 to 20 years away from being ready to be born as a (professional) writer. But if he's ready, he will:

-budget to pay for professional advice.
-not be scared to learn a professional's opinion. In fact he will be eager for it.
-realize he needs help, that he can't do it alone or with just one or two writer friends his own age.
-see that I am not trying to drag him down to my (less talented) level; I'm just telling him something I learned.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Skirmishes in the Money Wars

I got three offers, two of them with figures attached. Of both, I asked for more money, pointing out my well-known reliability, track record and 30 years of experience. Asking for more felt very risky -- remember, I'm a writer and am supposed to be grateful for anything at all. But I know budgets are always more flexible than managers say, that an initial offer is always a lowball, and that it's a game. I have often meditated on this motto I saw framed in a real-estate office:

"In business, you don't get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate."

Result: One offer withdrawn; they just didn't have more money. One offer on hold.

The third offer, a contract job. I was asked to make an estimate. I did -- noting the source and therefore asking for 25 percent less than the market price. And I asked for a percentage of the money up front, like a normal contractor. Never heard from them again.

In fighting for us writers to get paid what we are worth, I ain't winning but neither am I caving and kissin' people's feet. Now hear this, everybody: Pay the writer.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Donald Finkel, 1929-2008; Link to Interview

The poet Donald Finkel, a beloved artist and teacher and my MFA thesis adviser, died two weeks ago and I just heard. The memorial gathering takes place Dec. 12, 11:30 a.m., at the Women's Building on the Washington University Danforth Campus.

In 1994 I interviewed Don for The Riverfront Times in St. Louis. Because I knew him well it became more than an interview; rather, it's a portrait of the artist at the last major juncture of his career: the end of 30 years of teaching, and the beginning of "retirement." Click here to read the interview.

O he was wise.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Just for Beauty


Welcome, December (cringe). This month does, however, begin with a propitious conjunction of Venus, Jupiter, and the moon, combining beauty, luck, and passion. May it govern your writing this month! Sometimes it pays to look up from the page.

Friday, November 28, 2008

More Money

Writer friend and I were discussing how hard it is to ask for the right amount of money for a job. Especially if the amount of money initially offered is ridiculously low or degrading (recent request for material custom-written for some business's blog offered $10/hr. I could do better at Ponderosa.). How far should we go in naming our price? She said an older friend had advised her:

"Ask until your toes curl."

Good advice!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Your Own Back Yard

You're good enough for the nationals, no one disputes that; but after 5 or so years wondering why The New Yorker and Ploughshares don't publish you --

there's at least one literary journal or rag nearby. Your big city has several; your home state has a score. And, insofar as the fit is right, start submitting your work to those closest to home. Advantages:

1. Local editors will see your work and know you exist. If you're published, local writers will read your work (they're in the same journal) and when you meet them at literary gatherings (because you DO go) your name will sound familiar and you can make some friends.

2. Local writers will introduce you to local editors, because editors are writers too. See if you like them. Take them up on any offers to read their slush pile or hang out at headquarters. And then submit your best work. Do it soon-- before you're on their masthead.

3. Publish in two or three local journals and keep showing up for events, and local literati will seek you out for readings of your work.

4. Doing some readings may lead to teaching a workshop, judging a contest, or to a guest appearance in front of a college class. And somebody is always assembling an anthology. Now that he or she knows you, you might get asked to submit some work. Bingo; you go into a book without even trying.

I wrestled with the biggies and didn't get much of anywhere until I tried my homies. Does that mean I picked the low-hanging fruit? The above got me jobs that I live on, tons of great friends, and published. By their fruits ye shall know them!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Chapbook or Magazine Publication? Which is Best?

Real life-question: Poet has a sheaf of excellent poems, all unpublished. Should she skip ahead & enter them as a manuscript in a chapbook competition -- or first try to print individual poems in journals, and THEN do the chapbook thing?

Answer: No journal wants to publish poems that appeared first in a chapbook. I'd try first to publish individual poems in as many local print journals as possible, setting a deadline of one year; then -- no matter what the result -- I would make a chapbook ms. Local journals will further your work much faster than will national publications. How so? See next blog entry. Send to 'em all. Don't enter contests, just send the poems. And send simultaneously!

Think you have some good poems? Get a bunch of them out to your local journals by Dec. 15!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Are We Feeling Better Yet?

Some contributing writers and the editors at the book launch today, 11/19, for the fabulous new anthology Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America (Penultimate Press), edited by Colleen McKee and Amanda Stiebel. Book will be on Amazon.com very soon; $19.95; click here to see and order directly from the publisher, St. Louis's only nonprofit press. The book -- 21 essays, three years in the making -- will make a great holiday gift for any woman finding herself in contact with the U.S. health care hydra. In the photo, left to right: Amanda Stiebel, Cathy Luh, Janet Edwards, Corrine McAfee, Denise Bogard, Colleen McKee, Catherine Rankovic. Penultimate Press, run by Winnie Sullivan, is a nonprofit organization. Taken at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Write Some Coded Communication Today!

There are 17 writers represented by the 22 poems in the anthology Poems from Guantanamo: The Inmates Speak (University of Iowa Press, 2007). This slender book represents only a tiny percentage of thousands of prisoner-written poems because the Pentagon wouldn't clear most of them for publication. Why? Seems "The U.S. government contends that poetry presents a 'special risk' to national security, since the form lends itself to coded communication."

From an interview about the book.

Andy Worthington: And Abdur Rahim Muslim Dost, the Afghan [prisoner] poet, wrote 25,000 lines of poetry, much of it scratched onto Styrofoam cups and passed from cell to cell?

Marc Falkoff (editor of Poems from Guantanamo): Yes.

So being able to write today using a pen or computer, even though writing is a big pain and isn't going well, I'm glad. There was one former POW who once said, "A good day is one on which the lock is on the INSIDE of the door."

Here's one of Dost's poems that made it into the anthology:

Cup Poem I

What kind of spring is this,
Where there are no flowers and
The air is filled with a miserable smell?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

What's Really Wrong with Poetry Book Contests

Check out this essay by David Alpaugh, published Nov. 12, or just the excerpts below, if you've suspected there's something wrong with the exponentially growing number of poetry-book contests -- bet it'll articulate some of your uneasy feelings! Samples from the essay:
  • "Today, a short search of the web turns up over 300 chapbook and full-collection competitions . . .Even if contests merely continue to escalate at the rate of five or six extra competitions per year, an astounding minimum of 50,000 poetry books will be published as distinguished award-winners by the end of this century!"
  • "Before Emily Dickinson’s heap of 1,775 untitled poems could be competitive, she would have to discard 1,700 of them; give each of the remaining 75 a title; sort them into three thematic batches, each with a section title and epigraph; and come up with a catchy “umbrella” title (Wild Nights might be a hit with student-screeners)."
  • "Poetry book contests privilege serious poems over humorous ones; pathos over wit; “sincerity” over virtuosity; they eschew satire and persona; and devalue variety in favor of consistency of theme, form, tone, and “voice.” A swerve into the ineffable in the last few lines of each poem will keep your work “open” and “risky” in conformance with current MFA workshop practice."
That last one might not be entirely accurate anymore; I sense from recent winners that "the ineffable" is old hat, and satire and wit are coming back.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Reading Yourself

Chuck Berry hates to listen to his own records. Certain movie stars hate watching their own movies. I once spent a year and a half avoiding the print version of an article I published. Finally I read it. It wasn't half bad. In fact it was good.

Have you re-read yourself lately? If you are down, it might cheer you up. A few nights ago I got caught up re-reading my own books. I thought, "Man, I said that really well! It holds up! How did I do that? Can I ever do it that well again?" and although I know I could, given the same situation, for a few minutes I doubted it.

I'd say that was my own weird thinking, except I once interviewed a sitar genius named Imrat Khan who said he thinks the same thing when he listens to his own recordings -- that he could never surpass what he's already done, that future work will somehow be lacking.

These are fears, and fears have no existence apart from their host. Maybe Chuck Berry, 82, focuses on the future, not the past. I do appreciate the past for things accomplished and lessons learned. But a focus on the future -- even if it's only a contest deadline or writers' gathering that's coming up -- is a definite plus for the mental health of artists.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Gigs, a.k.a. Literary Readings

To get literary "gigs" -- invitations to read one's work to an audience -- you circulate, belong to clubs and groups, know people, pass on the names of underappreciated writers, and stay active on the local literary scene, whether publishing, editing, teaching, or being in the audience. I'm preparing for three gigs: November 14 (poetry), Regional Arts Commission, across from the Pageant Theater, 7 p.m.; November 19, UMSL (prose); then another on December 13, Black Bear Bakery, 2 p.m.

I love gigs because I write to communicate, and they give me a chance to air favorite works that for whatever reason aren't published: because they're new; because they're risky or offbeat; because I haven't a clue as to who'd publish them. A poet is a one-man band -- has to hold the audience as Aerosmith or an opera singer would hold it, without any of the instruments, props, amps or roadies. Just a voice and words on paper. This is one of the greatest challenges anyone could ever face. And one of the most rewarding to ace, whether you get money or not (mostly not). I strive to give a polished performance that offers a few twists and shocks.

You'll see and hear what I mean.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Writers' Agonies, Volume 1, Chapter 1

As a writer, I maintain certain unexamined assumptions I do not wish to examine at all. To wit:

1. Words are the whole world.
2. All words are equal.

These assumptions mean I agonize not only over my own work, but at scarifying length over all words ever spoken or written to me. I can spin up whole rainbows of agony out of a lone "Sorry" scrawled on a rejection slip, and fury, too, because whoever wrote it doesn't seem really sorry! I can't seem to weigh and sort words according to their source or context or tone. Some people say that words are mere hot air, or can be ignored! Not I! To me, all words are serious! You can imagine how I fare in a culture that is jerry-built on kidding and banter. For example:

A--HOLE:
Hi there, Eagle Beak!

ME:
Eagle Beak?

A--HOLE:
It's a joke! Just a joke! (Punches ME on the arm.) Can't you take a joke?

ME:
(Looks daggers.)

A--HOLE:
Ha, ha! I was just kidding. (Pounds ME on the arm repeatedly.) Geez!

ME:
You're a f-----g a--hole.

A--HOLE:
A-ha, ha, ha!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

It's Who(m) You Know

I've just ended my two weeks' vacation from my day job and now fully understand the importance of "It's who you know."

During vacation I contacted many people I promised one day "to have coffee with" and did so. Mostly writer friends and acquaintances. We had wonderful conversations. My friendships feel more intimate and stabilized, and life feels more balanced -- I'm not totally at the mercy of my struggles with writing and publishing. I've got people!

Normally I spend vacations drafting new work. This time I chose differently. I am a better and more sensible person for cultivating mutual affection and camaraderie.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Book the Poet Wants

A publisher kept my friend's poetry-book manuscript for 14 months before finally rejecting it with the comment, "This needs to be cooked down."

In other words, condensed. Shortened.

The poet then for the umpteenth time changed and rearranged the ms. -- product of 11 years of effort -- and "cooked it down." It's not necessarily better. But it's thinner.

Publishers are free to reject any manuscript. Editors can and should pinpoint weak or oafish poems. But "cook down" a manuscript? Why? Is it too long? Too luxuriant? Why do poetry books have to be so thin? Will "cooking it down" better please the readership and generate profitable sales? Unlikely. The publisher won't market the book -- that's the author's job -- so it's not a matter of marketability, either.

A poet's manuscript is as carefully crafted as any poem. Selecting, sifting and arranging -- editing one's own poetry book -- is the work of months. Do editors know that? If so, they might respect it -- and the fact that no one can know better than the poet how a long a ms. should be or how it should go.

So what is this "cook it down" unless it's another needle to stick into the poet, whose soul is already bristling with needles and knife handles?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Eating and Living Like a Writer, Part 1

Living on nothing as we writers tend to do I have some tips for all the other, more normal people who now find themselves financially at sea:

-Make your own "meat." One cup of vital wheat gluten makes 1 lb of "ground beef" in less time than it takes to go to the store and buy it. With a bit more effort, I make convincing "barbecue" and fried "chicken."
-Substitute Velveeta for cheddar, or learn to make "cheesy" sauce out of cheap ingredients like a potato and a carrot. You'll find such recipes in vegan cookbooks. You'll learn some real neat "substitution" tricks in them, and you don't have to be a vegan to use 'em.
-Shop ethnic markets for reasonable deals. Their regular customers won't stand for price-gouging.
-Don't dine out, or go to cute coffee places that sell individual cookies for, like, $2.25.
-Don't order in. No pizza is worth $17.
-Read magazines in the library.
-Pack your lunch. Because I work 10 to 6, most days I pack lunch AND dinner.
-Buy corn tortillas; a stack of 36 is insanely cheap, good for you, and you can do 1000 things with them for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.
-Attend free events, such as literary readings. Sorry, but you will just have to miss Joan Baez.
-Eat more bean-and-grain dishes and potato dishes, meanwhile telling yourself it's glamorously South American.
-Close off the rooms you don't use much. (Why do you have rooms you don't use?)
-An electric blanket is essential.
-Be aware that your car has a 13+-gallon tank and that keeping it filled adds lots of extra weight.

Eating and Living Like a Writer, Part 2

Tips for the nouveau poor who are now being forced to join all of us writers in the proverbial "same boat":

-Substitute vinegar-and-water, mixed 50-50, for most cleaning liquids and supplies; and what that won't clean/deodorize, baking soda will.
-If you need household goods, buy second-hand.
-Because you're living like a writer, you'll be losing two or three sizes. New business suits, brand-new with tags, can be bought for as low as $35 on eBay.
-Having less body means you can quit the gym and do exercise DVDs at home.
-Have shoes and leather items repaired.
-Have a yard sale or block sale.
-You are lovely just as you are and don't need night creams, manicures, Botox, spas, or bling.
-Do everything possible to avoid dry cleaning.
-Nowadays it's either fine wines or your kid's tuition. Which is it?
-Make a goal of going to the grocery store only once per month.
-Call the 1-800 number of every company that sends you catalogs and have them take you off their mailing lists.
-Use a phone card to make long-distance calls. I really save with that one.
-My cellphone is for emergencies only. Nobody has the number. I pay $10 a month for it.
-Edible pets are fashion-forward. It's dreadful but true.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Yes, I Knew Hayden Carruth

Poet Hayden Carruth died Oct. 1 at age 87. Fact is he almost died during the time I was at Syracuse (1986-88), where he taught for many years; a suicide attempt. My sharpest memories of him were 1) the foul look he gave me when I asked for admission into his "Mystery and Expressiveness" poetry class -- filled to capacity except for the much smarter, very young man who came in right behind me and gushed about how much he loved old jazz records -- and 2) his compliment on my lemon-poppyseed cake and 3) when he praised me after a reading for having written political poems.

But personality doesn't matter. Neither does memory. Only the writing counts. (I'd almost believe that, except that I don't see many cranky 67-year-old female poets, except maybe Adrienne Rich, teaching in creative writing programs.) I note Carruth's passing because I read his book The Sleeping Beauty -- and therein found a shape for the poetry book I wrote a year after I left the Syracuse writing program.

Hayden had a great deal of talent and a hard youth, including being fired after a year (1949-50) as the editor of Poetry. Mood-disordered and alcoholic off and on, at age 67 he looked frail and watery-eyed, but was not too old to pull rank or to affect the smugness of the white jazz aficionado who thinks his LP collection means he's less white. Female writers made him impatient. He preferred women as Muses. How ironic it must have seemed to him to be the last one left standing after his contemporaries -- Lowell, Berryman, et. al -- either killed themselves or died trying.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Where to Get Good Advice About Your Writing

-your writing group.
-your writing teacher or former writing teacher.
-a writing workshop, course or critique group (online is fine).
-a classmate from one of your writing courses, past or present.
-a professional writer or editor whose credentials and references you have thoroughly
checked.
-a peer whose writing and moral character have earned your respect.
-a mature and well-read platonic friend whom you know will not fail to give you an honest opinion.
-books and handbooks for writers.
. . .Or any combination of the above. If you are unsatisfied or made uneasy by a response, do your mental health a favor and get a second opinion.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

For Bad Advice About Your Writing, Just Ask

-any relative or in-law.
-your lover.
-a roommate or neighbor.
-your pastor.
-your landlord.
-anyone who is a model for a character in your short story or novel.
-anyone mentioned in your nonfiction.
-anyone who “wants to write” but never did.
-a former writer or blocked writer.
-any professor, except a creative-writing professor. (A literature professor will dig up and show you the creative writing he did while in college, and point out how it is superior to yours. Think I'm joking? I've had that happen to me TWICE.)
-anyone who tries to shrug off your request.
-a famous person, writer or not. If he's a writer, he's too busy writing to give advice. If he's not a writer, why ask him?
-a substance abuser, including hip and stylish marijuana smokers.
-anyone who works for you.
-anyone who fawns or is thrilled to pieces to be asked to read your manuscript.
-someone not yet of legal age.
-someone you’ve just met.
-someone you want to impress.
-anyone who jokes that he or she should get a percentage of the proceeds when you sell the manuscript.
-an “agent” you’ve found on the Internet who requires you to pay a “reading fee.”
-anyone you secretly think is conceited or a pest.
-anyone who asks to be paid with something other than money.

NEXT: Where to get good advice.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Objections to the Workshop Method

While the classic "writing workshop" peer-critique method is used widely and successfully, it has its detractors. Objections to this classic workshop model include those listed below:

  • Asking the writer to stay silent and listen during discussion of her work is a form of oppression.
    Maybe that’s true. If you think so, try "reverse workshop" variations: Have the writer speak for 10 minutes about the work in question while everyone else listens. Or have everyone write out one question for the writer, hand the questions to the writer, and let her read aloud and answer the questions.

  • A workshop is really a kind of peer pressure for everyone to “dumb down” their writing and make it bland and politically correct.
    Caving in to “peer pressure” is a choice. Those who will do it merely to get praise and acceptance are either overdependent on praise or are in the wrong workshop.

  • The group-workshop process homogenizes people’s writing styles, and/or destroys their originality.
    You were born unique, and have unique things to say, but originality, like wisdom, develops over time, and once developed it cannot be destroyed. Associations among artists do not automatically lead to compromise. Take for example writer Gertrude Stein and her salon, or the works of painters such as Picasso, Kandinsky, or Klee, whose works became more original and radical as they matured. If in your workshop you aren’t being encouraged and challenged to do yourself one better, you are in the wrong group.

  • Writing workshops aren’t for everybody.
    That’s true, especially for young writers, under age 18. They should avoid workshops unless they are held in a school and moderated by a helpful and sympathetic teacher. Young people’s creative experiments should be shielded from the remarks and reactions of careless peers, or adults who hold standards that are anti-creative or punishingly high.

  • A workshop is basically a bunch of bad writers sitting around reading each other’s bad writing. Therefore it can be of no help to anyone.
    Let’s pretend that’s true. If so, the only thing a writer could ever get out of a workshop is seeing what other writers do badly. And that by itself is an absolutely priceless lesson for any writer. This “basically a bunch of bad writers” remark came from a celebrated writer famously incapable of editing his own writing. He sent editors manuscripts thousands of words longer than the editors had asked for or could possibly publish. The editors were forced to craft and finalize his manuscripts by cutting excesses and repetitions. Such extensive editing annoyed the writer, but he had never learned to see his work as a reader might see it, and therefore had to cede to editors the power he should have wielded over his own writing. The ability to assess and craft one’s own work is precisely the power that develops most rapidly in a workshop setting.

  • Thursday, September 25, 2008

    Top Ten Blogs for Writers

    Thanks to Tricia Grissom over at one of my favorite blogs, Coffee and Critique, for posting the link to the megablog that has picked the Top Ten Blogs for Writers out of hundreds of nominations. The top selections focus on going for the gold -- selling freelance articles. If you have not yet learned how to write articles for a mass audience, or have never tried, you can enroll in a journalism course and learn it in a short 15 weeks. In any case, the blogs are upbeat and inspiring, and we all need that right now.

    Wednesday, September 24, 2008

    Now They Have a Name for It

    On the wonderful CR WRT OPPS site there's a posting announcing a reading series by

    "Post-MFA / Pre-Book Poets."

    Finally we have a category! See, we M.F.A.s who had no books thought that we were merely losers, when in fact we were "pre-book."

    I spent 16 years pre-book. It was like spending 16 years pre-root-canal. I'd been warned that self-publishing could destroy my career. What career? Poetry is a career? For what percentage of the population? I decided to risk the said career and get it over with.

    And -- surprising me endlessly -- the results have been all to the good: much satisfaction, a small monetary return. A "legitimate" poet turned green when I flaunted my $54 check from a bookstore that sold my books on consignment; she never got a check that big for her book! She actually grabbed the check from me to ascertain that it was what I said it was! Plus, I learned that I could have kept to myself that my book was self-published because it's got an ISBN, looks professional, and has another publisher's name on it. In some quarters my baby could pass as "legitimate"!

    Now, poets M.F.A. and pre-M.F.A. are beginning to routinely self-publish, saving themselves 16 years of wasted time. While some of their efforts are a bit tentative, they haven't been consigned to career hell or even been burnt. BTW, the last 12 or so poetry books I've bought have all been chapbooks. Do you think I'm going to chase down and order some $22 hardback from the Press at the University of Squat, written by somebody I don't know? LOL!

    Friday, September 12, 2008

    Ships Start to Come In

    This week I got multiple payoffs for hard work done long ago. Book about women's health care, the anthology Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak Out About Health Care in America (Penultimate Press), including essays by myself and former writing-group buds Cathy Luh and Janet Edwards, will be published on schedule and launched at the University of Missouri - St. Louis on November 19. Editors are writers Colleen McKee and Amanda Steibel, who spent 2 years seeking a publisher.

    Then comes in the mail today the contract for two poems of mine to appear in as-yet unnamed anthology of St. Louis poets, edited by Matt Freeman (author of the admirable poetry collection Desolation on Delmar).

    Introduction to Creative Writing, in the Washington University night school, had its first-ever workshop session Thursday. This one treated poetry by all 8 of my students -- some of whom had never before written a poem. Successful workshop on all counts. Next week a guest poet will read for the class and speak about her work: Susan Grigsby, former student in that same class in the Fall of 1997, who went on to a career as a poet for both adults and children.

    Learned a lot in my poetry group tonight. It's a group of women called Loosely Identified. I've been going to the monthly meetings for little less than a year. They passed around a photo of the group as it looked 25 years ago. Some of the same people in the photo still attend meetings!

    Helped another writer polish up a grant application. Sure hope she gets the $17,000 she's aiming for!

    And I hugged a writer today. If you see one, please hug one.

    Monday, September 8, 2008

    The Wasted Day

    Plans fell through and I was alone. Painfully disappointed I packed a picnic and camera. Drove about 10 miles and hiked for 3 hours, with lunch near the end of it. Took 98 photographs, mostly flora. Wondered why four of my closest friends, intimates, are sick, all at the same time. Decided it couldn't be me. (Could it?) Needing a guaranteed intoxicant I listened to ABBA on the drive home. Back home, listened to disco CDs. Sent 2 encouraging emails to sick intimates, attaching photos. Wondered why I don't listen to more music, even though I have terrible taste. Admired the hummingbirds sipping homemade nectar. It's not red but they like it just the same. Tinkered with non-writing hobby while watching bad TV. With relief found somebody to IM with for a while before bed.

    Very slowly, in the attic of my mind, began to think again about the 2 book manuscripts I've left in the pipeline for a couple of months because I don't know what my next move should be.

    Sunday, September 7, 2008

    Nabokov's Day Job

    Today I learned that Vladimir Nabokov spent six years in the 1940s organizing the butterfly collection of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. He told species apart by looking at their (microscopic) genitals and wouldn't consider any other way. He collected their genitals. His books are loaded with butterfly references and inferences. In upstate New York he discovered and named the tiny Karner Blue butterfly. Apparently it doesn't hurt one's career to obsess about something in life besides writing (if, like Nabokov, you can rely on your wife to drive you everywhere and run the household -- i.e., you have "an angel in the house"). But this 3-inch beauty from Missouri I photographed today -- although it looks blue and black to me -- is in fact called a "Red-spotted Purple" butterfly -- Limenitis arthemis astyanax, as Nabokov might say.

    Tuesday, September 2, 2008

    That, Plus 50 Cents, Will Get You Coffee....

    I once edited an autobiography by a Holocaust survivor. The author was 10 when transported to Auschwitz with his father, an M.D., late in the war. The doctor told the Nazis – then badly in need of a camp M.D. – that the boy was 16 years old and his assistant. Both were therefore allowed to live, and both survived.

    However, because the author was so young when imprisoned, he retains few vivid memories about the camp and its inhabitants, and most of his narrative described his life after Auschwitz – emigration to the U.S., medical school, his career, marriage, and retirement.

    The author’s question was: Did I think he could get an agent for the book? It was, after all, a memoir by a Holocaust survivor. Life stories don’t get any more dramatic than that.

    My research turned up these surprising (to me) facts: Holocaust memoirs are “a dime a dozen.” Agents, publishers and readers don’t buy such books out of respect for the survivors. They snap them up only if such memoirs are very detailed and shocking and revelatory, and if the book centers on the camp experience. Agents and publishers want THAT so badly that they will seize upon phony Holocaust memoirs cooked up according to that recipe.

    Very carefully and politely I told the author my crushing conclusion: If he wanted to see his memoir in print, he should self-publish. He wouldn’t stoop to that. Can’t blame him. But since that time, someone has tried to establish a Holocaust-memoir vanity-publishing business to make themselves some money from these dime-a-dozen manuscripts. I’m not kidding.

    And you want an agent for that memoir you wrote about your relative with Alzheimer’s? Your broken hip? Your infertility treatments? Save time and effort: Publish it yourself.

    Tuesday, August 26, 2008

    The Poet's Ego

    Friend of mine, younger and talented, is still trying her best to get the work honed so it can be published in high-level rags. Hopes to publish enough to impress a book editor or win a contest, and then secure a job teaching full-time in a university, and thereafter have a nice life. That's what I wanted for myself.

    The good side of giving up on this is, I don't sweat anymore about publishing in the right places or even the wrong places. I don't even have to try. It saves a lot of mileage on the poet's ego. It's enough for me to have somebody HEAR my poems, if they won't read them.

    And this has led me back to why I wanted to write in the first place: to communicate. To tell the truth as I saw it. To have fun. For art & beauty. To get my ideas aired. To show off my individuality and my passion and my very nice mind. Long leap from those original ideals to applying for a position at Squat University -- a starter university, of course, until I worked my way up to one of the Big Ones.

    It strikes me that this -- the academic job -- was the only goal anyone thought was worthwhile, that made a poet successful. Golly, what a wild imagination those people had!

    Saturday, August 23, 2008

    I Get Intimidated

    Thought I was immune by now, but at this month's "Loud Mouth" hootin' & hollerin' open-mike reading at The Mack, a bar in South St. Louis, which I'd dared myself to read at, I got intimidated. I didn't read the poem I planned to road-test -- a feminist poem that would have filled my entire five-minute slot. Instead I played to the mostly-male audience's Bukowski fixation and lost all my respect for myself and whatever respect the audience might have had for me. I was one of two female writers on the bill of ten. The other wore a tube top. The emcee, a student of mine five years ago, now a stand-up comedian manque, had never recovered from the final "B" he had earned in my class. He introduced me thus, "Have you ever really wanted to get back at a teacher? One of those mean teachers who tried to destroy you?" --and so on. (I fail to see why "B" is such an injurious grade.)

    Most of the readers knew one another and had brought their own entourages. I had sensed I would need one, so I dragged in a long-suffering, patient couple, the husband a fine poet I thought might get a chance at the open mike. He was cajoled to read a poem, but refused to be part of this historic lineup. At least one of the readers, volcanically loud and incoherent, was certifiable; and the others were terrible, or terribly impressed with themselves -- like the bewigged 70-year-old Parisian who stopped his reading to accuse me of laughing at him (I wasn't laughing, just unable to repress a smile). A kindly nebbish read a 9/11 poem he had laminated. The other female reader actually said, "I wrote this this morning, about 11 o'clock" -- and then there was yours truly, all rehearsed, who jumped ship on myself and gave a terrible performance. Final grade for me: D. Pride goeth.

    A good learning experience and proof that I still need to work on confidence. If it is at all possible for you, learn from my mistake.

    Wednesday, August 20, 2008

    Publish-On-Demand Wins A Round

    File this under Publishing's a Business: A publisher with a new and favorable book about Barack Obama is offering it first through Publish-On-Demand (P.O.D.), exclusively through Amazon.com. This is because it can -- and it wants the book available to readers before next week's Democratic convention. Now, so far, that's just good business -- for the publisher, for the readers, and for Amazon. Barnes & Noble, among other bookstores, is P.O.'d because brick-and-mortar stores wouldn't get Obama's Challenge for another two weeks, when it's yesterday's news and sales will be limp. So it'll be selling the book online, but not in stores. Read the story with all its juicy numbers and quotes in The Wall Street Journal.

    The B&N spokeswoman says that by pre-releasing the book through Amazon, the publisher did not allow "an even playing field -- which is common practice in book publishing." (Authors, if that statement leaves you speechless, place here an emoticon of your choice.)

    But unless the publisher made a contractual agreement regarding the book's availability, it's just business.

    Friday, August 15, 2008

    "Part of Being a Great Poet Is. . ."


    "Part of being a great poet is having great pictures of yourself taken," Tess Gallagher told our class back in '87; and I admit to being fascinated by author photos, especially studio or "studied" photos such as these here. Such photos alone express the high drama and confidence involved in the work of writing -- never otherwise visible. Probably for the drama of it, authors are traditionally photographed only in black & white. True, I've seen some super-dramatic, off-putting, plunge-neckline jacket photos, but most writers have more taste than that.

    Here's Tess (photographed in Washington State by Corbin) in 1987, about age 44, when I knew her; the picture is on her book Amplitude: New and Selected Poems. And here's Vladimir Mayakovsky as a 20-year-old art student in 1913, the year he published his collection "I" and blew some windows out of the Moscow literary establishment. I like how Mayakovsky defined himself in a poem: "I'm not a man; I'm a cloud in trousers!"

    Poet Marina Tsvetayeva, Mayakovsky's contemporary, left a hint on what she thought writers should wear: "Clothes that are not beautiful in the wind are not beautiful at all."

    Tuesday, August 12, 2008

    Solzhenitsyn

    "He wrote, that while an ordinary man was obliged 'not to participate in lies,' artists had greater responsibilities. 'It is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie!'"

    That's from the NYT last week, after Solzhenitsyn died. Mainly I remember how he and his bone-shattering books embarrassed the liberal intelligentsia in the 1980s, when I lived in Boston among, but not of, the Cambridge cognoscenti. They didn't like his shamelessly truthful chronicles of the great failure of the Soviet experiment -- such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Gulag Archipelago, or even Cancer Ward. They spoke of his work as "fiction."

    Russians have a saying, "Eat bread and salt and speak the truth." Solzehnitsyn was a blunt and truthful witness and that's worth more than a hundred witty and cultured Cambridge cognoscenti.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008

    "Starving in a Garret"

    Writer (usually poet) is always, in the popular mind, "starving in a garret." I wondered whence came this phrase and image of our profession. Looked it up. The original "born in a cellar and living in a garret"comes from the 18th century. The word "starving" replaces "living" in the19th century, whence comes this romantic 1856 painting, "Death of Chatterton." Seventeen-year-old poet Thomas Chatterton committed suicide in 1770. He actually WAS going to starve, and chose to poison himself. The phrase and image endure; has nobody come up with anything more accurate? I mean, bummer!

    Credit Lord Byron, in "Childe Harold" (1812) for making a powerfully attractive figure out of a brooding, reckless young artist who, in real life, would give anybody a pain. I can see Byronic poets wearing black and smoking cigarettes on Delmar Blvd. even today.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008

    Hell Freezes Over; Publisher Gives Away Books

    The late Carol Bly wrote a probing, wholly adult textbook on short-fiction writing, called The Passionate, Accurate Story (1990, Milkweed Editions), always my choice as the fiction text for my Introduction to Creative Writing course. Heather Clark of the Washington University Bookstore told me that Milkweed had 5 copies left, not enough to fill my order for this fall, and it wasn't printing more, but would send those 5 if I wanted; plus:

    "[Milkweed] cannot technically sell the books to us since it has been declared out of print. They are going to 'donate' them to us. I cannot charge a student for a book that was donated to us. So I gave her my shipping number so we can be charged for the shipping. I will contact you when the books arrive and give them to you to distribute to your students, or for your students to share. If you have any questions, let me know."

    Free books for my students, direct from the publisher!? What a delight! For such a great book! (It's available used.) Ms. Bly (1930-2007; pictured) would have loved this! I'd be a fool to ask questions!

    Monday, August 4, 2008

    How to Anger a Poet

    Now, I know enough to PICK my battles, but for Christ's sake PLEEZE, America, cut me some slack and don't show me any more course descriptions like this one I saw today:

    "POETS AT HEART": We’re all poets at heart. In this course we will address several poetry forms and devices. Class reports will be made defining these forms and devices and each week we will write and read poems (our own and other poets’). Our goal is to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of poetry, along with enhancing our abilities to write poetry. Remember, anybody can write poetry. (Text: Poetry For Dummies.)

    Saturday, August 2, 2008

    When Poets Gave Orders

    "We order that the poets’ rights be revered:

    • To enlarge the scope of the poet’s vocabulary with arbitrary and derivative words (word-novelty).
    • To feel an insurmountable hatred for the language existing before their time.
    • To push with horror off their proud brow the wreath of cheap fame that You have made from bathhouse switches [clearer translation: "from toothpicks"].
    • To stand on the rock of the word “we” amidst the sea of boos and outrage."
    The above is from the Russian Futurists' manifesto, "A Slap in the Face of Public Taste," 1912. By comparison, our poets are people-pleasers and wusses. Each of these century-old demands is, for poets in 2008, a total taboo. We say, "I don't think your experiment with coining new words is very successful," and "I don't know where you'll find a market for this," and "If only I could make it into Best American Poetry 2009," and "I can't figure out who is that collective 'we' being referenced in your poem."

    By comparison, how timid we are! And how powerless! Are those things linked?

    Sunday, July 27, 2008

    It Hurts to Be First

    A small group of fellow writers, acquaintances, good people all, asked me to meet with them to get some guidance about a self-publishing project. I asked to be paid $100 for this, and through the contact person we set a date to meet.

    Then the contact person sent a polite and apologetic email saying the group was following the leads I had suggested to them previously, had learned what they felt they needed to know, and frankly some of them had been uncomfortable with the idea of paying me -- someone they knew -- and therefore had decided not to meet with me after all.

    It hurt. Clearly, the money was the sticking point. I feel embarrassed having asked for it. I think the writers' perceptions of me have changed. But I wouldn't be following my own advice if I had bartered a Sunday afternoon, a 40-mile round trip, and hard-won expertise for "Thank you, you're very generous" and "Isn't she a nice girl." I want to say, "I AM a nice girl. But I'm 51 and if you've noticed that I'm on the skinny side these days, it's not because I'm dieting."

    As small as this incident is, as small as I feel, this was a victory in the battle for writers to get paid.

    Wednesday, July 23, 2008

    How I Changed My Luck Some More

    So, last year I put some sample poems online at poemhunter.com, and recently a photographer, a stranger, found the poem called "Blue Chicory," and requested permission to reprint it on her blog, alongside her artistic photo of a blue chicory blossom. And I said yes of course yes.

    Without the Net, Ms. Dyer would never have read the poem. Without poemhunter.com it wouldn't have been posted. With poemhunter.com the author was easily traceable so that permission could be requested and granted.

    Put a few of your own favorite poems on poemhunter.com, preferably if they've already been published and rights have reverted to you. If unpublished, they count as published when you post them, so think twice. It's a good place to post poems YOU love that no editor seems to like. Yes, a lot of stuff on poemhunter.com is dross, but certainly not yours, and you open up a chance for good things to happen. Even a small good thing. Every little bit builds confidence.

    Monday, July 21, 2008

    How I Changed My Luck

    After about 35 years spent alone writing, I needed a change. I'm ashamed to say I had some mummified notions, 20 or 30 years old: Real writers work solo, right? Writers' groups are for old ladies who look and smell like roses, right? (To be honest, I did meet once with a group just like that, but I let it prejudice me.) And with my schooling, what did I have left to learn?

    So in the past 6 months I've become a member of the St. Louis Writers Guild, the St. Louis Poetry Center, the St. Louis Publishers Association, the Loosely Identified women's poetry group, and the Missouri Writers Guild.

    Fortunately all the above groups are vibrant, active, well-established (90+ years for the St. Louis Writers' Guild; 25+ years for Loosely Identified) and run a tight ship, so I'm getting suggestions for my work, making friends, seeing awesome work in progress, getting invitations to parties and to submit manuscripts -- I had 3 poems taken that way -- easy! -- Also, tipoffs about hot writer websites (see the links at left) and good blogs, forums, seminars, and chances to do more and do it better. My whole mood has changed. And because of that, I've tried other positive things. How glad I am that I got into the car and joined the living!

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008

    Advice to a Co-Worker Leaving Her Job to Enter an MFA Program

    • Get to know everyone.
    • Attend every literary event that you can.
    • Keep a journal.
    • When you’re suffering, telephone (don’t E-mail) a fellow student.
    • Your mistakes are okay.
    • Understand that some of your fellow students applied to the MFA program and didn’t get in, so they are getting a regular M.A., and boy are they jealous of you.
    • If you teach freshman composition, know that some of your students cannot be saved.
    • Sleep on it before submitting it to workshop.
    • Love affairs that start in the first weeks of grad school will end badly.
    • Get a bicycle.
    • Make yourself go to your writing professor’s office during office hours, just to chat.
    • If you need money, get a part-time job no matter what your contract with the college says.
    • Don't bug famous writers to help you, because they won't.
    • It's not an illusion: Male and female writers are not treated the same.
    • You'll get discouraged sometimes, but don’t let anybody stop you.

    Friday, July 11, 2008

    Annie Dillard Helped

    Annie Dillard (nee Meta Ann Doak) helped me today as I chose 6 unpublished poems to submit to an anthology that is no sure thing, that I suspect might never be finished or published. So I wanted to hold back a couple of poems just too good for it, thinking: I bet these could impress a bigger editor -- later. Then Dillard's words came to mind:
    One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better.
    And I sent my 6 best poems and felt the rightness of it, the healthiness of having set them free, trusting that I will write even better ones. Thank you, Annie.

    Wednesday, July 9, 2008

    Just Saying "No"

    At this point, after the fourth rejection of my "Interviews with 11 St. Louis Writers" book manuscript, I could cultivate the familiar writerly psychological problems: "I did my best, it wasn't good enough," "Why try," and "I could have predicted this," & so forth. Against those I repeat 50 times: "Writing is an art, publishing is a business." But there's new spot in the Petri dish -- maybe because this is a new kind of manuscript for me -- and it communicates thus:

    "You're so arrogant, thinking you can publish a book as-is and get a smidgen of glory. Get real. Remember you are a servant. You serve the publisher and readership. The publisher suggested you compile full bibliographies of all 11 authors. In certain cases, such as Gerald Early's or Don Finkel's, this would take years and you'd come out, as in grad school, with a face like a sneaker sole. But you should do it as a service. Learn to think not like an author, but like a servant."

    To this I said (to myself): "That violates my boundary. I think it does. Yes. It does. I perform a service. But I am not a servant.

    "H-ll no!"

    Monday, June 30, 2008

    The Last Taboo: Money

    Re: "The Privilege of Doing It" (June 19), poet Julia Gordon-Bramer commented: "There will always be young, hungry, talented interns who don't need much to survive. What is to become of the rest of us?"

    Good question! My answer: The world can't use young and hungry interns for everything. People will sometimes want or need people with experience and a proven track record. Having those, we may value and price ourselves accordingly. And working for less shows we lack respect for our own hard-earned skill and wisdom.

    True story: A friend said she would pay me to read her book manuscript and honestly tell her why I think publishers won't accept it. I said I would, for $75 an hour. She said "That's too much," and ended the conversation. Another writer agreed to assess that manuscript free, as a friendship favor. Two years later that writer still has the manuscript and my friend hasn't heard a word. It's strained their friendship: My friend tries not to feel resentful and both of them try never to mention it. Big bargain, eh?

    I'm not saying, apply at Wal-Mart and demand $40 an hour just because you've been in the work force for a while. I am saying, if you have decades of writing experience and are asked to provide a writing-related service, ask for money. Yes, it's hard to do, and it's hard to be cold-shouldered or to hear cluck-clucking about how uppity you are. But you should feel GOOD when someone is miffed because you won't work for little or nothing. Watch this eye-opening 3-minute clip on YouTube called "Pay the Writer" to see the sheer absurdity of abasing yourself and your entire profession.

    We got ourselves into the "Sure, I'll work for nothing" trap, and have to get ourselves out. It won't be quick or easy. Do it anyway. Asking for fair wages for your work will help all the others who are too weak to ask.

    I know that talking about our paychecks is the last taboo. Ever wonder who made it and keeps it taboo?

    Thursday, June 26, 2008

    World-Changing Chapbooks

    A list of historically important 20th-century chapbooks is nowhere to be found, so I'll make one. Please help me add to this list.

    Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), by T.S. Eliot
    A Few Figs from Thistles
    (1920), Edna St. Vincent Millay
    Howl and Other Poems (1956), Allen Ginsberg
    SCUM Manifesto (1968), Valerie Solanas
    Edward the Dyke and Other Poems (1971), Judy Grahn
    Twenty-One Love Poems (1977), Adrienne Rich

    I thought Three Guineas might have been a chapbook -- it's often called a "pamphlet" -- but its first edition is in hardcover.

    Wednesday, June 25, 2008

    Chapbook Renascence

    Not so long ago -- about 15 years -- a "real" or "serious" poet wouldn't be caught DEAD issuing a chapbook. Only losers would try to preserve their work in little stapled, spineless booklets! Because desktop publishing as we know it did not exist, the booklets were either hand-set or photocopied. That was the extent of alternative publishing -- the only way for poets to take publishing into their own hands. A book reviewer back then, I swatted chapbooks away like flies. I saw them knee-deep at secondhand bookstores. Well, things have changed and chapbooks are important now.

    Cherry Pie Press since 2005 has published a series of poetry chapbooks by Midwestern women. They are beautifully produced and the poetry is hot and it keeps coming: Three new books this year. A friend of mine, Pamela Garvey, won a chapbook contest last year; her chapbook is titled Fear (Finishing Line Press), and each copy is threaded through with a satin rattail ribbon, different colors: mine is wine-red. Poets with traditional publishers will issue chapbooks if they've got some work that's too edgy for the suits. Ted Hughes issued 110 copies (that's all!) of a chapbook titled Howls & Whispers (1998), 11 poems from the Birthday Letters series that he, or somebody, thought were too edgy to publish in the regular book. In a rare-book room I read copy #75. Online I found a deluxe edition for sale that costs USD $27,500. Mostly, though, chapbooks are a heck of a lot more affordable than normal books of poetry, and they're mostly meat, very little gristle. A book of 20 or 30 poems that are ALL good is positively intoxicating.

    I'm even urging chapbook publication on poets who have lots of good poems but not enough for a full-length manuscript, or who have full-length manuscripts they can't publish. Chapbooks can be handsomely made, even at home, and circulated and sold, mainly at poetry readings, but also through flyers, local bookstores, and the Internet.

    And as far as I can see, no poet today is ever sorry that he or she issued a chapbook. Poets, consider it. And maybe it's time for some fiction or nonfiction writers to do it too.

    Thursday, June 19, 2008

    The Privilege of Doing It

    A scientist comes up to me after I discuss how writers never get paid very much because, it's said, just being published is pay enough, and it's a privilege to be a writer and I should be satisfied with that. . .She said to me, "I was a researcher and never got paid very much -- because just getting to do my research was, they thought, compensation enough. . ."

    Surprised, I told her I thought all science people really raked in the cash with those grants.

    Oh, no, she said. Post-docs, researchers, all sorts of people, they aren't paid very much.

    I said, They also exploit young people. Because they're young, employers think they don't have to pay much.

    She said, They do it to journalists, too. I said Yes, I know; I worked at a newspaper where goodies like circus tickets were supposed to compensate for pathetic paychecks.

    Now I wonder: In how many professions are skilled and dedicated workers being b.s.'ed that they shouldn't be well paid because they have "the privilege of doing it." And like fools we believe and profess and accept that! What a wonderful scam!

    (Winner of the June 2008 Artificial Difficulty Award!)

    Wednesday, June 18, 2008

    The Poet Laureate of Missouri Said

    Walter Bargen is the Poet Laureate of Missouri, the first one ever appointed. Notes taken during his talk to the St. Louis Writers Guild preserved some of the intriguing things he said:
    • "The role of the writer in society is to keep us awake."
    • "Poetry is like music; talking about it is not experiencing it."
    • "Each first line [of a poem] is an argument for the poem's existence." (For example: "About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters. . ."; "You don't remember the hanging, but you do. . ."; "Each lover has a theory of his own . . .")
    • "It's rhythm that marches your reader through the poem."
    • "You know you're really writing well when you're surprising yourself."
    Also in my notes, not a direct quotation, maybe an on-the-spot inspiration: "IDEA: Read poetry to stones, birds, and trees." Read a post-seminar interview with Walter Bargen here.

    Monday, June 9, 2008

    My Mom for President

    Elect my mom president of the United States and the budget will be balanced in five days. The occupation of Iraq will end when she says so: no ifs, ands or buts about it. Osama Bin Laden will quake in his boots, and if he bombs anything she will clean his clock and show him who is boss. There will be no shenanigans in the Oval Office. You'd better believe the White House will be tidy and there will be no eating at the desks. Rich folks will be taxed until they're in the same boat as the rest of us.

    President Mom's cabinet will be working women who know how to juggle everything and get things done. She will award medals to stay-at-home mothers, nurses, cancer patients, and graduate students. Dick Cheney will soon be laughing out of the other side of his mouth. When the Democrats and Republicans have stupid arguments she will say "Cut it out or I'll knock your heads together."

    Sunday, June 8, 2008

    Writers and Horoscopes

    Friend of mine had a St. Christopher medal in his car to protect it. I said, "Didn't you hear that the Catholic Church retired St. Christopher, at the same time it retired Limbo-- they say there's no historical evidence that he ever lived. . ."

    My friend replied, "It can't hurt."

    The only thing in astrology that has always, always worked for me is the Moon Void-of-Course (VOC). Anything done during a Moon VOC period (every 2 or 3 days -- can last the whole day or a few minutes) will come to nothing. Moon Void is a great time to have a mammogram. It's a crummy time to make important calls, send manuscripts, start a novel or make a commitment. I've tested this over a period of years. Anything for more confidence!

    Astrologer Georgia Nichols follows the Moon Void patterns, and her daily horoscope column will always say when (it's U.S. Eastern time) it's a good time to make decisions or spend money, or when to hold off. It's right at the top, under the heading "Moon Alert." Try it. It can't hurt.

    Monday, June 2, 2008

    Show Business for Writers: Hecklers and More

    #7. Don’t apologize onstage. If you make a mistake, a slip of the tongue, knock over the mike, etc., ACKNOWLEDGE it by saying “Oops!” or “Let me try that again,” and MOVE ON. Never begin a reading by apologizing for anything. (“Some of these poems aren’t very good” “This is an excerpt from a novel, so it probably won’t make any sense to you”) The audience doesn’t perceive this as honesty or humility. They've wasted their time coming to hear literature that even the author thinks is no good.

    #8. People will not remember what you did, but they will remember how you made them feel. (Attributed to Walt Disney)

    #9. Heckling is rare, but don’t ignore it if it happens. Always have a response ready. At a reading in a pub, I saw a poet heckled by a drunk. The poet bravely tried to ignore him. Rather, he should have acknowledged the heckler by saying something like Hank Williams used to say: “Somebody get a shovel and cover that up over there.” Dick Gregory, who integrated the Playboy Club, handled a heckler thus (preserved on a live recording): “If you don’t like me, why don’t you just get up, burn your cross and leave?”

    #10. Is your audience fidgeting, bored, escaping out the exits -- while you're reading? Change your tone. Not your speed, but your tone.

    Wednesday, May 28, 2008

    The Marketer Says, and I Quote

    Yen Chen Support's Professional Marketing Team ensures you a proposition and a set of benefits for your end customer, delivering the true value of what you have got to offer.

    Start now! Prosper by paying due attention to your products and services with Yen Chen Support's Web Design, E-Mail Marketing, and Online Listing Marketing Services!

    [What's this about? See below.]

    I'm Rich and Devoid of Common Sense

    • If sending out a mass e-mail to 5 million perfect strangers, at a cost to you of $2,359, sounds to you like an effective way to market your self-published book. . .
    • If you think establishing an author website or a book website* will make your book sales soar. . .
    • If it sounds like a good idea to spend $1,387 to submit the link from your website to 3,000 websites with no guarantees that any of them will post your link. . .
    Marketing.YenchenSupport.com is for you. I'm in some sort of database of self-published authors. Yenchen phoned me this morning. When I expressed interest in their company, of which I had never heard, they passed my call up to a guy who spoke better English and told me all about their services for self-published authors. If I signed up today I'd get 30 percent off.

    I wish at this time to let everyone know that "self-published" does not mean "rich" or "naive" or "devoid of common sense."

    *All authors should have such a site, but such sites aren't sales tools. They are contact tools. When was the last time you bought a book through an author's website?

    Saturday, May 24, 2008

    Follow the Amazon Anti-Trust Lawsuit

    The plaintiff (Booklocker.com) in the Amazon/BookSurge anti-trust lawsuit is posting a chronicle of events at http://antitrust.booklocker.com.

    Also, in comments published on this site and Booklocker's, a self-published author warns that when she attempted to close her account with an Amazon affiliate publisher and switch to another, they "retired" her title. When she protested, wanting the book entirely out of their hands, they said they would fully "remove" her book from Amazon's listings. But they didn't, so it's still there; it's just that nobody can buy it. When closing her account they "retired" the title of a book of hers that was almost in press, a move that made that title theirs; she fought and got it back, but only on a technicality. Now that's artificial difficulty! A crazy-making situation more than worthy of the May 2008 Artificial Difficulty Award.

    Thursday, May 22, 2008

    The Self-Publisher Options You Need and Don't Need

    Every self-publishing firm offers a number of optional services on top of its base price. If you want a professional-quality book, these are the options you want:

    -Professional copyediting and proofreading of the initial manuscript and final proof. Money spent on this is money well spent. Don't economize by trying this alone. Your readers will love finding the inevitable errors, and you will hate paying the self-publisher to correct and reprint your book.
    -Professional layout or setup of the book's interior. This may be called "the setup fee" and is often included in the base price. The self-publisher has the proper software for this.
    -Professional cover design. You may supply the photo or illustration, but don't insist on drawing or lettering your own cover. If you don't like what the publisher's graphic artist suggests, ask for another design.
    -Register your book with the Library of Congress. It sounds easy: Fill out forms and write a check. But the forms are complicated, rather like patent applications, and with my first book only an 18-month correspondence straightened everything out. Save your mental health and pay $100 to get it done.

    Don't waste your money on:
    -Independently buying your own cut-rate ISBN number for your book. A self-publishing firm will not be able to use it.
    -The pricey package allowing you "unlimited customization" of your book. Why pay your chosen self-publishing firm thousands of dollars just for the luxury of spurning its help and advice?
    -Promotional or marketing packages that will compose press releases, send your books to reviewers, and so on. Self-published books do not benefit from these tactics.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008

    Amazon BookSurge Personally Phones Me

    May 19: Anti-trust lawsuit filed against Amazon.com for pressing self-publishers to print books exclusively through its subsidiary company, BookSurge.

    May 20, 12 noon: A promotional E-mail from BookSurge (how’d they find me?) offers me 20 free copies of my own book if I self-publish with them before May 30. I’m curious and reply.

    May 21, 10:20 a.m.: A deft and polite BookSurge sales rep ACTUALLY PHONES ME. I said I had a 90-page book of poetry, print-ready, in PDF format. Faint hint of dismay (poetry?!) detected. To publish this book in paperback I’d pay them only $299 and get 1 copy. If, like most authors, I had a plain, no-pictures, word-processing manuscript, not print-ready, requiring interior layout and design, I’d pay $499 and get 1 copy.

    Honestly, the above two deals are competitive in all details with other good self-publishers. Except Booksurge alone can currently say, coquettishly, “We are one of the few self-publishing, print-on-demand companies that can guarantee availability on Amazon.com always.”

    But what about my 20 free copies? I asked the rep. Turns out that Booksurge’s May special isn’t for penny-ante printing like mine, but for their Total Design Freedom Packages: $799 to $2,749. (Note: The traditional publishing industry has never given authors a say in their covers or bindings, much less total design freedom. It sounds good, but you don’t need it.)

    Like other PODs, BookSurge has optional promotional tools, but only BookSurge, being Amazon, can pair your book with an Amazon bestseller as a tag-along (“buy this too”) suggestion on the bestseller’s page -- if you pay $1,000 a month.

    Tuesday, May 20, 2008

    Amazon is Getting Sued

    Yesterday, May 19, a POD publisher named Booklocker.com filed an anti-trust lawsuit against Amazon.com. To simplify greatly, in March Amazon declared that POD publishers (and self-published authors) must use and pay THEIR printing service, called BookSurge, if they wanted Amazon to list their books. Booklocker is saying this is unfair -- as it clearly is.

    Today, May 20, (in an E-mail stamped 11:20 a.m.) I received "A Special Offer from BookSurge for Authors!" Until the end of May if I self-publish with them they'll give me 20 complimentary copies of my book, plus some nice things a POD gives as a matter of course, such as the copyright to my own book. I also got a freebie eBook listing 555 ways I can market my self-published book. Yawn. I mean, talk about being behind the wave.

    Amazon.com is the sole source and distributor of the wireless reading pod called the Kindle ($400). It's cool, but it will download only reading matter purchased through Amazon.com. Although Kindle users have been agitating for a 2.0 version with more freedom of choice, Amazon has not scheduled any such thing.

    Between BookSurge and the Kindle are authors, publishers, and consumers, all getting squeezed. We liked it when Amazon just sold books. Now it's like the boa constrictor that's so big and tangled it doesn't realize that the thing it's strangling is itself.

    Saturday, May 17, 2008

    Bedeviled

    Lately I’ve been tempted to enter writing contests -- local or online. Ach! They are everywhere and are hard for me to resist! Just accompany that 250-word essay or couple of poems with that $10 or $15 "entry fee." Write that check, or give it up to Paypal, because…

    PRIDE: The contest is so local/small/restricted that for me it is no contest at all, and my work will surely place, although odds are it will win.
    GREED: I need the prize money. I’ll take $100, $50. Or $10.
    GLUTTONY: I don’t care what it is or what it costs, I don’t care what I send or who is judging it or how low I’m stooping: I want prizes and I want them now.
    SLOTH: If I win or place, it’s an easy gold star to add to my resume, and if not, at least entering the contest was easier than market research or having actual relationships or sending out stuff that might get rejected. Besides, I can only finish things if I’ve got a deadline. . .
    ANGER: I’ll win one of these penny-ante writing contests if it’s the last thing I do.
    LUST: Sure would like to get my hands on that [prize]!
    ENVY: I never saw a prize that I didn’t deserve more than the actual winner did.

    Pray for me!

    Friday, May 16, 2008

    Who's Your Fantasy Publisher?

    Deciding to spend today thinking big, I wondered: What publisher would I choose for my work if I could choose any one?

    I'd choose different publishers for different works, but do I know anything about them, really?

    Have I looked each of them up on the Net? Visited its website? Looked at, perhaps even ordered its catalog? Checked out its other authors? Know the names of the editors I'd be working with if my fantasy came true? Whether the firm is solvent or if there are rumors of mergers or collapse? Whether it has an ePublishing division?

    Why no, I haven't done any of that, even while knowing very well that we all have to know what we want before we have any chance of getting it.

    Thursday, May 8, 2008

    Show Business for Writers: Three More Tips

    #4. SLOW IT DOWN! Writers tend to read aloud at the same speed that they read with their eyes! Yes, you're doing a “reading,” but you’re not “reading” – you’re speaking. Speak SLOWLY and CLEARLY, at about half to one-third of your normal speaking speed, and don't be afraid to pause. Audiences need time to let your words sink in. This may feel “theatrical” to you first-timers. Check by rehearsing in front of friends or peers.

    #5. Respect your audience (said Danny Thomas). Go onstage STONE SOBER and NEVER drink or smoke until your program is over. Don’t try to make people laugh. They will laugh if they want to; you can’t make them. Literate audiences are there to hear literature, and resent gimmickry. I once saw a poet accompany himself by twirling a plastic jumprope over his head to get a “whoop-whoop” background sound. If poet has a guitar, I leave. (It's like Madonna with her guitar; too embarrassing to witness.) At another reading, a cellist "echoed" the poetry. This supposed enhancement felt endless. But I was stuck in the front row and couldn't move, so I listened to the cello, which was a heck of a lot better than the poetry. Don't risk a comparison!

    #6. Always look better than they do (Steve Martin). You may think that your normal scruffiness conveys that you are unpretentious, all-natural, and at one with the people, but in fact you are covertly communicating an insult to your audience: “I look like a slob because I want to look like one of you.” I saw a prizewinning poet read in jeans and t-shirt and sneakers that made her look as if she was about to clean her bathroom.

    Monday, May 5, 2008

    Show Business for Writers: Tips #1, #2, #3

    May is Mental Health Month. It’s also Better Speech and Hearing Month. May 4-10 is “Reading is Fun” Week. So let’s talk about reading your work to an audience. I’ll assume you want to do it well.

    A google for “show business for writers” turned up nothing. Ditto for “stage etiquette for authors” and related searches. But I did find advice from some great entertainers. So here are the first three tips from an ongoing list.

    #1. At public readings people aren’t there to admire your looks or talent. All audiences hope above all to be entertained. That doesn’t mean “make them laugh.” To “entertain” originally meant “to hold together.” Your job is to hold the audience’s collective attention and give them a complete and satisfying experience.

    #2. Read your best work. There is no substitute for good material (says Liza Minnelli). When you’re planning what to read, variety is nice, but if you must choose between variety or quality, choose quality.

    #3. Nervous about it? We all are. So plan, rehearse, and time your program well before the performance date. This bestows confidence. All entertainers prepare with rehearsals. Select your work, put it in some sort of order, and get comfortable with your chosen program by reading it aloud several times. Some writers say, “I get there and check out the crowd and then decide what to read.” That isn’t as cool as it sounds. I’ve seen it result in self-conscious, muddled ("uh, I dunno if I should read you this one. . .”) and overlong performances. “Overlong” means longer than you’ve been asked to read. Every audience hates a stage hog. I once saw a local poet introduce a nationally famous poet by reading his own 20-minute ode to her. Everyone wanted to murder this guy.

    Sunday, May 4, 2008

    Awesome Small-Press and Litmag Database

    Wouldn't it be nice to know: How long you'll REALLY wait between a submission and acceptance? What percentage of mss. a publisher rejects? If they pay a little or a lot? The top 25 publishing venues with the largest percentage of acceptances?

    Fiction writers and poets, genre and literary: Toss your Writers Market and search over 2100 mags and small publishers with Duotrope Digest's free database and reports. Search by genre, payscale, length of your work. . . receive guideline info, plus unique Better-Business-Bureau info (see example below), updated daily by writers just like you! Click on Duotrope's file tab "Curious?" for aggregate info such the top 25 venues with the quickest response times.

    Example: I searched Genre>Literary; Media>Print. Below is part of the report for the litmag The Painted Bride Quarterly (chosen at random). Good Lord, expect to wait 242 days for an acceptance -- a ghastly wait that inspired 44 percent of the authors to withdraw their submissions after an average of 150 days.


    Days Reported 8 | 191.7* | 474 (min | avg | max)
    Responses (51.9%)
    Acceptances: 7.4% (242 days avg. per acceptance)
    Rejections: 44.4% (210.5 days avg. per rejection) | 16.7% personal, 50% form, 33.3% unspecified
    Rewrite Requests: -
    Non-Responses (48.1%)
    Assumed Rejections: 3.7% (364 days avg. per assumed rejection without response)
    Author Withdrawals: 44.4% (151.8 days avg. per withdrawal by author)
    Other Information
    Most recent response reported was received on: 14 Apr 2008
    Responses have been received for submissions sent as late as: 17 Sep 2007
    (74.1% of the responses reported to us for this market have taken longer than 60 days.)

    Wednesday, April 30, 2008

    Pay the Writer

    Get to YouTube any way you can and watch "Pay the Writer", 3 minutes with screenwriter Harlan Ellison.

    If you've ever wanted to get paid for writing, this is a must-see. No matter what you write. Warning: some profanity. (You will still smile.) And pass the link to all your writer friends.

    Monday, April 28, 2008

    The Subsidized Novelist: April's Artificial Difficulty Award

    A first-time novelist excitedly told me the deal: The big Christian publisher will print and distribute his Christian novel if:

    1. The author pays to have it published.
    2. The author pays a publicist to promote the book.

    So as not to rain on his parade, I didn't say, "That's called subsidy publishing, and it's just like self-publishing except that the publisher owns the rights to your book and you have no creative control over the product."

    What I said was, That's okay, I guess.

    That'll clear the decks so I can work on my next book! said the author.

    I said, You'll be pretty busy marketing that first novel.

    He said, The publicist is supposed to do that.

    I said, The publicist will arrange some things, but the person the publicist wants appearing at bookstores all over the country and on radio shows and at speaking engagements is you.

    He said, Dang! Then why do I have to shell out for a publicist?

    I said, Because your publisher said so, I guess.

    Behold thee the winner of the April 2008 Artificial Difficulty Award.

    Saturday, April 26, 2008

    Bookstores Accommodating the Self-Published

    In tomorrow's NYT is a juicy piece about self-publishing, but skip the article's opening moans and groans about how there are too many writers (they mean us). This is the news part:

    ". . .For the most part, big booksellers shy away from carrying self-published books. But they’re still looking to jump into the game. . . .

    "The Borders site says self-published authors can even arrange readings in local Borders stores. . ."

    And a big hint that a self-published author will soon be able to BUY space on bookstore shelves, if that's what he/she wants and can afford. (Vanity shelving!) That'll help keep the big-box bookstores open for a few more years -- because fewer people shop in those places anymore, unless they want Harry Potter or Rachael Ray. The surviving bookstores will be more like independent bookstores: smaller, and supportive of local authors; and a center for downloads. Or there will be small, dedicated book/media stores: one specializing in mysteries, one in romance, one in Spanish-language books, and so on.

    Given that, and given all the new competition for readership -- what's your plan?

    Friday, April 25, 2008

    The Easy Public Reading

    At a poetry reading this past week, the poets got to sit down while they read their work. Normally, solo speakers of all sorts, like stand-up comics, must stand, or -- we were offered this -- perch on one of those high bar-stools that intellectual-type comedians such as Dick Gregory or Mort Sahl used to use, back in the day. Well, the stage was elevated and I was wearing a skirt, so that was not a seating option.

    The other poet on the bill, Rebecca Ellis, had learned ahead of time about the customs of the venue and brought a pretty cloth to dress up the table. That way any reader could be comfortable -- and the audience stay focused on our upper halves.

    This was the first reading I have ever given while seated. The manuscript pages lay flat on the table in front of me, no chance of dropping them. A cup of water didn't have to balance on the lip of a shaky podium. I didn't have to worry whether my knees were knocking, or if I was too far or too close to the mike. Freed from all that self-consciousness, my energy flowed instead into the audience and the poems. And afterward I didn't feel drained. Instead I felt very good. I have said for years that reading one's own poetry in public (like, for 40 minutes to an hour) is very hard work. Well, just this week I learned that it doesn't have to be so hard!

    Thursday, April 17, 2008

    Your Editor Wants a PDF File?

    Word comes from NYC that some editors don’t want paper manuscripts; they want digital PDFs (Portable Document Format) files.

    Writers will need some kind of software to convert word-processing files to PDF files. This is also called “printing to” a PDF file. Here are some options. (Drop me a note if you know more.)

    The more expensive the program, the more likely it is to deliver a “searchable” PDF file, which is nice for the editor; or preserve any hyperlinks or images you embedded in your ms.

    Freeware:

    CutePDFWriter. At http://www.cutepdf.com/Products/CutePDF/writer.asp. Widely used. You have to have a printer, and download an extra file. I’ve downloaded this one, but somehow it has never worked for me. Windows only.

    Create PDF from MS Word only: http://www.doc2pdf.net/converter/

    PDF Online https://www.pdfonline.com/track.asp. I converted a 225-page ms.; took 12 minutes to get done and emailed to me, but otherwise fine. But PDF Online does not preserve hyperlinks, reduces image resolution, and leaves your PDF metadata, which is indexable by Google, empty.

    Note: Some conversion “freeware” will rudely stamp or “watermark” your PDF with its name or logo.

    Shareware:

    You get a 15-day trial with http://www.go2pdf.com/; the Wondersoft Virtual PDF Printer; after that you must register and pay a “small fee” but they don’t say what it is. Converts files into and out of PDF form, which can be handy. You can buy a “Pro” version for $89.95.

    Pay-For-It Ware:

    I love the free Foxit PDF Reader which I recommend in place of the Adobe Reader. Foxit will charge you $35, however, for one license for a Foxit PDF CREATOR, which is what you need for conversion. http://www.foxitsoftware.com/pdf/creator/ Don’t bother trying to “Get it Free” – in the most bizarre deal I’ve yet seen, it’ll force you to buy something on eBay or sign up for Yahoo Personals…

    For $99.99/yr you can subscribe to unlimited Create Online PDF services by Adobe,
    http://createpdf.adobe.com/cgi-feeder.pl/menu_prodinfo?BP=&LOC=en_US.
    The trial version will make you “wait in line” for your conversion behind the paying folks. But with this you can make your PDF searchable, or turn a webpage into a PDF.

    For $200-$400 there's Adobe Acrobat Professional software for your computer. It’s “bloatware,” a big program that clogs up your hard drive. It’ll do everything if you can make it work. I have version 6.0 and it works on PC but not laptop. Current version is 8.0.

    For some of you, conversion software may be considered a business expense.