Sunday, December 30, 2007

Better Than Money

"I have to let you know," said the young poet who sought me out at the party, "that your new book inspired me to write my first nonfiction. I've had some stuff to deal with, and I thought first that I might write it as fiction. But it came out as nonfiction. It's my first essay. I just wanted to thank you."

"That's really great," I said.

"And whenever I got sort of stuck while I was writing it, I would look at the essays in your book and see what you had done. I used them as a sort of template."

"I'm glad," I said.

"I never thought I'd write any nonfiction. It was such a surprise!"

"Poets tend to write good nonfiction," I said. "Could you tell," I added, "in those earlier essays, whose template I was using? James Baldwin's," I said. "You can see me imitating his sentence structure. Until I got my own."

"I love James Baldwin. I've read a lot of his fiction. I love Sonny's Blues, and use it in every class I teach. But I didn't know he wrote essays."

"He wrote great, great essays. His fiction really doesn't compare at all. I hope you can get the collected-essays book called The Price of the Ticket. If I have any regrets," I said to the poet, "it's that during his lifetime I must have had the chance to hear James Baldwin read from his work, maybe on a campus, and I must have passed it up. I'd never even heard of him. I was already in my 30s when I first read his work. But his essays were my inspiration."

"Yours were mine!"

And later I thought: That's more proof that only good has come of my having the nerve to self-publish. I don't mean money; I can go work at Wal-Mart and make money. I mean true genuine good.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Keep your Poems Safe

A must-read, creative writers, by a writer/editor who knows about computer security:
Cherry Pie Press: Keep your poems safe

The Almost-Finished Poem

I have this little paradise of almost-finished poems: a file called "Completed Poems - Almost."

When I have a block of time, preferably about six to ten days, I draft poems like crazy, writing big, big, long, sloppy, inclusive first drafts. I let it all hang out. I run the idea into the ground. These drafts are raw material. I mark each of them "Draft 1" and print them out. They go together in an envelope marked with the approximate date of composition (such as "Fall 2007").

When there's another spot of time (at least six months later) I delete and toss the hopeless drafts. Those that still stand are so long 'n' sloppy I can easily refine them simply by cutting. If after that I still care, I print these drafts out, mark them "Draft 2," and then the intensive crafting work begins.

When a poem is almost finished -- when it's whole except for, say, that one nagging word, or one line, or a closing line -- it is promoted to the file "Completed Poems - Almost."

I visit this file with pleasant anticipation, when I have time, usually every six months or so. Often I can immediately see what the unfinished poem needs, supply it, and promote it to "Completed Poems." They get printed and put in a binder, marked "New Poems," and then I toss the drafts.

A really sticky "almost-poem" I'll read aloud. My sense of embarrassment, boredom, or distaste tells me exactly where to apply my crafting efforts -- or whether any further efforts will be in vain.

Some drafts do hard time in that "Almost" file. But I like that file even better than "Completed Poems." A completed poem is satisfying, but the adventure of making it, the romance, the wild guesses, the risks, the faith, the Nikola-Tesla-like experimentation, the race to the finish, that chance that this poem will be really, really great -- is so OVER.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

What People Say

A very serious young student heard me read from my poems. I asked her opinion later. (Never do that.) She said, "Cute."

She was being pompous in a twentysomething way (recalling too well my own flaming youth), but this lodged in me like a grain of sand in an oyster. Of all the things I've been and ever aimed to be, I've never wanted to be cute. I'd like to be entertaining, like Chaucer, but also have his smarts. Coy, kittenish -- no!

A hundred defenses occured to me: She doesn't register my feminist politics -- because she's so young she never had to have any! -- She has no idea what poetry costs! -- and so forth.

Then I saw this Soviet-era quotation from a poem addressed to poets:

“[…]/ This is for you—who dance and pipe on pipes,/ sell yourselves openly,/ sin in secret,/ and picture your future as academicians/ with outsized rations./ I admonish you,/ I—/ genius or not—/ who have forsaken trifles/ and work in Rosta*,/ I admonish you—/ before they disperse you with rifle-butts/ Give it up!/ Give it up!/ Forget it./ Spit/ on rhymes/ and arias/ and the rose bush/ and other such mawkishness/ from the arsenal of the arts./ […] There are no fools today/ to crowd open mouthed round a “maestro”/ and await his pronouncement./ Comrades!/ give us a new form of art—/ an art/ that will pull the republic out of the mud.”

Spot-on, I thought. Was that what my student had meant? But has a poet ever done that? Maybe Whitman? But with such a muddied republic as ours is? Can it be done? What would it cost me? Should a poet care what it might cost?

[from The Bedbug and Selected Poems, by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Indiana University Press, 1975. Translated from Russian by Edwin Morgan. *"Rosta" is a contraction of "Russian Telegraph Agency"; the line's connotation is "and give my all for our people."]

Monday, December 10, 2007

Does Joyce Carol Oates Have to Be a Good Speaker?

Dear Joyce: I know who told you that the three speeches at the [name omitted] University event must all be finished by 6:00 p.m., and that as the luminary, the star of the show, you must assume the podium last. You did so explaining that your speech had been written to fill 35 minutes, but that someone [name omitted, by both you and me] had implied that something awful would happen if we weren't all outta there by 6:00 p.m., so you'd skip through and make it 20 minutes.

So your talk on "The Writer's (Secret) Life: Woundedness, Rejection, and Inspiration," that we were all so hot to hear got clipped. My heart sank as you said, paging through your text, “I’m skipping here. . . I’ll have to skip this. . .” Mostly you read good quotations and biographical bits, and even made some high-literate jokes ("To tell one's name the livelong day to an admiring Blog”). We liked you, and laughed, and you looked fffabulous – tall and skinny, pre-Raphaelite face and rippling hair – can you be 69 years old? Unbelievable!). You even cared enough to wear cool earrings (they signify friendliness). But yours was not the happenin' speech that we, your fans, hoped to hear.

Yeah, but on reflection, who decided that writers had to do everything? Write well, get the right publishers, publish a lot, win prizes, teach well, look well, be friendly, gracious, amusing, helpful, open, socially adept, generous, available, witty, succinct and inspiring speakers, perceptive social commentators, and politically correct? And spokespeople too for their race, their gender, their faith, their politics, their genre? And all the while shrewdly and subtly sell themselves and their wares? Holy mackerel! People don’t expect even God to do all that! But I could clearly see that's what you aimed for!

Enough already! For the artificial difficulties thrown in your way, you did fine, and I hope you got scads of money for appearing. Perhaps $8,000 (that’s what Jonathan Kozol, the anti-segregationist writer and educator, charges, last I heard). – Your Admirer and Fan.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Free to B!

The ms. sent out in June got rejected yesterday. YAY! Now for Plan B. "B" stands for "Better"! With the social-software course I took this autumn, and the appearance of the very viable, buyable, Kindle reading pod at, I can with confidence bypass traditional publishers and, if I decide, turn it into an eBook and do just fine.

That’s sort of like sending a movie not to theaters but straight to DVD.

To make an eBook is free unless an ISBN is required. Ridiculously, ISBN numbers are sold, by one vendor (Bowker), normally in packages of 10, and that package costs $245 plus $30 handling. They sell singles for $125 (!) but they don’t advertise that. (Info is from and Talk about artificially difficult!

But I might just do it for Fame: St. Louis Writers of the 1990s. Somebody must want to read interviews with Donald Finkel, Carl Phillips, Harper Barnes, Ntozake Shange, and seven more, for their historic value -- or just explore the minds of fine writers. This summer I researched and wrote killer introductions to each interview, and (in a rare instance) am still glowing from how well I did them. They kick! Wish I’d interviewed MORE writers.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

How Does a Writer Take a Vacation?

Once I spent a whole day cleaning an institutional meat grinder. I was volunteering, helping humanity, trying to pry myself out of my little isolated writer's dream world. Volunteering has always somehow brought me in contact with mops and dishmops and bleach and soapy water. So volunteering is not an option for my vacation -- from writing.

I don't have money (it's December, when property taxes eat 1/3 of my monthly net), so trips and dinners and shows and retail therapy are out. It's also cold outside, and it's hunting season, which puts the kibosh on outdoor adventures.

All year I have put off reading and doing a workbook that in 10 easy steps will turn me into A People Person. The author says that to do this I will have to become a Christian. I suppose that's little enough to ask. However, it doesn't sound restful enough to count as a vacation.

I could lie in bed, on the couch, or on the carpet, and read, and watch movies and TV -- or just do nothing -- but only after I return home from my day job, because I can't take a vacation from that, not at this busy time of year.

I could clean the house from top to bottom. Or draw pictures, or do crafts. These are all unsatisfying pastimes -- and they are "pastimes," and time is passing a heck of a lot faster than it used to.

Dear person who thinks I need a vacation from writing: I'd rather write!