Monday, October 29, 2007

A Writer's Week

Sunday: Led poetry workshop. Made a friend.
Monday: Decided to make trouble at the big fancy university, and submitted Island Universe for inclusion in the "Faculty Celebration of the Book," a glittery, every-five-years university event at which real faculty (not adjuncts like me) are invited to show off and sell their books. Asked two friends for the recommendations that were required.
Tuesday: One of the above friends, an editor, sent SOS for an essay. I hadn't any that were near completion. I contacted 7 writers including former students. Six writers had essays, finished and polished and stockpiled, and sent them to the editor for consideration.
Wednesday: Writer's group meeting. We planned our group retreat; it will include a group goal-planning session.
Thursday: During lunch break, rehearsed and timed Saturday's public reading.
Friday: Woke from 2nd consecutive dream that told me I should become a full-time freelancer for big markets.
Saturday: A.M.: Consigned copies of new book to local bookstore. P.M. Public reading.
Sunday: Rested.
Monday: Took 3 "poem idea" scraps from my carnival-glass "idea holder," and drafted three new poems. Received ninth rejection of writing group's manuscript.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Gee,Thanks: How a Writer Pays Debts

Authors thank their editors, friends, teachers, patrons and so forth on a page in the front of their books. When my turn came it was like a big hairy math problem:
1. Thanking everyone would have been a book in itself.
2. Many people helped me and all of it was important, so I couldn't list only a few select people.
3. Those unlikely to see the book must still be acknowledged.
4. One wants to give sincere thanks regarding that particular book, not favor other writers who used one's name in THEIR acknowledgements.
5. Using famous names looks like fawning.
6. There's a temptation to get even by making grossly obvious omissions.
7. There's a besetting "f--- you" fantasy: listing idiots, enemies, and thwarters, and concluding with "No thanks to you." There's a reason why that must stay a fantasy.
8. Thanks are due, and one can't withhold acknowledgments just because the whole issue is touchy.
9. How does one order the selected names? Alphabetically? Most-to-least? Least-to-most (leaving the best for last)? (Then how do I set it up so no one can decode this?)
Just another barbed-wire fence in this artificially difficult profession!
Final count: 23 names, 1 group name (covers 7 people) = 30 people, listed in the chronological order that I met them.
That number, for a book of prose, is about average.

Monday, October 15, 2007

About the Cover Artist

First copy arrived Saturday. Went on today (10/15). I like it and hope you do too.

Story of the cover art: In 1983 I bought a postcard with a strange and striking picture on it: a bird fantastically feathered with autumn leaves. I kept it posted in my writing space for 20 years, through cross-country moves, always thinking, "I'd like that painting on the cover of my first book." Finally in 2005 I put together Fierce Consent and Other Poems. I had the painting's name and date: "Der Herbstvogel" (Autumn Bird), 1970. Google led me to its painter, Siegbert Hahn (b. 1937) of Germany. Through his website I E-mailed him and he most graciously gave permission to use Der Herbstvogel on my book cover. Dream come magically true! His assent was how I knew I should go ahead with publishing that book.

I considered Mr. Hahn's paintings again when I put together Island Universe. Titled "Die vielen Wirklichkeiten" (The Many Realities, 2000), this painting was a perfect fit. Mr. Hahn again permitted me to use his painting, this time sending the original slide for scanning so the lines would be crisp and the colors true. "One of my most mystical paintings," he wrote. Without the Internet I would never have found the artist. Perhaps in 2008 I will go to Cologne and meet him and his partner of 40 years, Dr. Peter Guckel.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Famous Friends

NYT today published a three-page article about novelist Tom Perrotta. At Syracuse, in the graduate program in fiction writing, he was a classmate (class of '88). The two fellowships had gone to the Golden Boy and the Hemingway Boy, and the rest of us taught two sections of Freshman Comp, 25 students each. I complained to Tom that I had little time to write. He advised me to do as he did and "blow off teaching."

Well, I just couldn't let my freshmen down -- and there was the fork in the road.

The six men in our class went on to publish: four became fiction writers, one a poet. I'm glad for the successes of Tom and George Saunders, a deserving Golden Boy, beloved by The New Yorker, now teaching at Syracuse. They were never my close friends, and Tom I never saw again, and George only once, but I have had the honor of being considered their peer.

The three women were all depressed. One went to St. Louis where SHE had the fellowship (in poetry. Her fiction wasn't worth a bean. Back then there was no such thing as creative nonfiction).

I see now that for a young writer to keep writing, someone has to give you, grant you, a boost -- a scholarship, fellowship, some prizes, a mentor, a wealthy spouse, a lucky break. Or you have to boost yourself by boldly breaking down whatever holds you back.

In honor of Tom's success, and Doris Lessing's -- blow off an obligation today!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

New Book & Nobel

Arrived today: the first copy of Island Universe; beautiful, especially the cover painting. More copies will follow. Two hours it took to get my eyes off of it. A new book is like a new baby.

News I loved: Doris Lessing wins the Nobel Prize. On TV she said of her youthful self, "Nothing could stop me. . . ." For 25 years I have admired her writing, and her shamelessness -- now copied by everybody, and not unusual, but there was a time when a woman writer should have felt ashamed. She changed that. This past year read the five Martha Quest novels in order: Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, A Ripple from the Storm, Landlocked, and The Four-Gated City. (Ordered used copies; A Ripple was especially hard to get -- the Washington University Library *didn't have* the middle three novels; now there's a real occasion for shame!) Then The Golden Notebook. Martha's apartments, her political meetings, her nights of drinking and dancing, her jobs and quandaries were all enthrallingly real. The NYTBR tells me Jonathan so-and-so and Don whatsis are the great writers, & I just have to smile.

I want to be like Doris Lessing and publish a new book every two years until I'm 87. She would say I should have done that all along.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Nine Ways to Judge a Literary Journal

Pretend the literary journal you're looking at is a person, and ask yourself if this is the sort of person you would like to befriend.

1. How does it look? Healthy, artsy, sloppy, folksy, ritzy? . . . . and do you like its looks?
2. Does it seem able to appreciate people (writers) like you?
3. Does it seem to refer constantly, not to say obsessively, to things you have had enough of, such as Greek myths, old barns, eating disorders, famous dead writers, or graphic depictions of meaningless sex?
4. Is it trying hard to be something it's not?
5. Does this journal let you know, through its form or content or list of contributors, that it doesn't care to associate with your kind?
6. Is there something in this journal that intrigues or stimulates or impresses you?
7. Do you like this journal enough to see it again? To sit down and have lunch with it?
8. Do you two have anything in common?
9. Would you like to be associated with this journal?

Full disclosure: At this time I am a longtime subscriber to just one literary journal, and that's the quarterly Creative Nonfiction. I keep up with Natural Bridge. Not long ago I gave up The Sun and The New Yorker, because they arrived so often that reading each issue felt like a job.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Rejection at 50

My first published poem appeared 32 years ago. Rejections stung only a little. (There was still time to win a Pulitzer by age 25.) Then, around age 40, when I expected more rewards, my fragility increased: Call it osteoporosis of the soul. This forced me to systematically, ALPHABETICALLY, read through literary journals and submit only to those that published poems like mine. This HATEFUL activity forced me through jungles of jealousy: "She's younger than I! And he writes better! And that's a great poem! And she's published four books! And there's my former student in a journal I failed to get into!"

Actually, I was doing the smart thing, business-wise, because publishing is a business, but it only increased my fragility. Approaching age 50, I dreaded those S.A.S.E.s even more. Now I'm ever so careful to:
1. Send only my very best poems.
2. Make sure my poems have a a ghost of a chance at that publication. (Next blog will be about that!)
3. Avoid contests, no matter how tempting -- the chance of winning, about 1 in 1000, is too remote.
4. Take long, long breaks in between bouts of sending, sometime six months or a year.
5. Keep working on more, and when those S.A.S.E.s or E-mails come back, curse or cry, feel grossly ashamed of my "arrogance" and "presumption" in thinking the world might want my poems -- and then get over it, and put poems right back in the mail.

See that list of five things? That's my new backbone.

And yesterday: **Good news! ** A long, risky poem, perhaps the longest and riskiest yet, accepted. How long has it been since a poem got accepted? Three years? Five?

Joy? No. Forehead on forearm, and a sigh of Relief.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Emily Dickinson's Computer

Computer was in the shop all weekend; still is. So I had idle moments. Let's download something different, I thought. So I took up the book of Emily Dickinson's poems, the one that's shabby, fingered, nicotine-stained.

Forget YouTube, virtual worlds, et al. . .this blew my circuits:

Like Brooms of Steel
The Snow and Wind
Had swept the Winter Street,
The House was hooked,
the Sun sent out
Faint Deputies of heat--
. . . .(1252)

Her poems -- her metaphors -- her capitalizations, even -- shocked me back to life. I'd forgotten -- I'd forgotten!*@!!&!! what life felt like, and looked like:

They called me to the Window, for
"'Twas Sunset" -- Some one said --
I only saw a Sapphire Farm--
And just a Single Herd--

of Opal Cattle--
. . . . (628)

I do need my computer. But it had encouraged me to settle for "cool" or "informative" or diverting mental "noise," -- no, no~! Mental comfort food! -- & that all that together is not worth one Emily Dickinson poem. Aftershocks went on the next morning in the form of a richer outlook, with sudden (get the pen!) ideas. . .