Brushing with Fame When You Don’t Know You’re Doing It

I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t know what a lot of writers look like.  Unlike movie and television stars, whose photos are ubiquitous, writers—even most superstar writers—don’t get their photos splashed everywhere.  I don’t watch TV, so while writers might be doing the book tours, and showing up at morning chat shows, I’ll never see them there.

Authors I would recognize if I saw them walking in the streets:  Stephen King, John Grisham, Roxane Gay, Joyce Carol Oates.  (And Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman and Audre Lorde—but of course, they’re long dead.  And if they were walking in the streets, that would be terrifying and highly inappropriate for a corpse.)

Forget poets, I have no idea what they look like.  We live in obscurity.  The only poets whose faces I’d recognize are the poets I know personally—not an insignificant number, but not a huge one either—or the poets I follow on Twitter, though their images are about the size of a finger nail.

My point being, sometimes you bump into a famous author—whose name or work you know, but you don’t know the person, so you’re caught a little flat-footed until you see his or her name badge.  This very sitch happened at AWP this year in Washington D.C.

Working the Atlanta Review table on Friday morning (Feb. 9th), I perfected my carney act, trying to entice passers-by to get interested in the journal and maybe buy a subscription, when a handsome older man in a dapper hat, too polite to pass on by after I flagged him down, stopped.

“Do you know about Atlanta Review?” I asked in my dreadfully cheerful, most hopeful voice.

“Yes, I do,” he said.

“Are you a poet?  Have you sent us some submissions?”

“Well, I have a list of 100 journals that I’m currently going down the line and sending work to.  Atlanta Review is somewhere in the middle, a great journal.  But I’m mainly a fiction writer.” (Dramatic pause.)  “I’ve written…oh, maybe 50 books.”

And that’s when I notice his name badge, peeking out from his scarf—Walter Mosely.

Oh, geez, do I feel stupid.  Of course he’s written 50 books, he’s Walter Fucking Mosely, famous for his Easy Rawlins detective novels, like Devil in a Blue Dress, which came out in 1990.

walter-mosely-photo

via John Winokur on Twitter @AdviceToWriters

We chitchat a little longer, and then he promises that he’ll send some work our way soon, and wanders away from the table.

I’m standing there, bemused, thinking, If I had just seen his name badge, I could have been a lot more effusive in my interaction with him.  I could have sounded like a fan.  (Not to hustle him into buying a subscription, but because writers like to be appreciated for their work.) But he was absolutely charming, and didn’t seem to hold it against me that I didn’t recognize his face.  (Thank goodness.)

Of course, this is all by way of saying, we should know what authors look like—they should be in our collective consciousness, like movie actors—writers are just as important and affect people in personal, sometimes lifelong, ways.  And it’s just too bad that on some arbitrary scale of cultural significance, writers, and especially poets, fall somewhere near the bottom.

I think they should make posters of famous authors, and there should be issues of the equivalent of Tiger Beat for poets.  Wouldn’t that be cool?  If suddenly we had magazines full of poet pinups?  (I think that would be fun.)  Or if there were trading cards with bubble gum which you could collect?  Or glossy, autographed headshots?

On a last note, I realize I do live under a rock, so perhaps others are more aware of what their literary heroes and heroines look like than I am.  But I wish that as a group, we were a little better at publicity.  That fame game is hard.  (I wish I was a little better at it myself.)

AWPost Mortems

It’s no secret I didn’t want to go to AWP.  In fact, when Karen Head announced to me that she had arranged it, fait accompli, that I was going to the conference, I pretty much decided to permanently take to my bed with the vapors.  My attitude wavered between considering how amputation of all my limbs or a lobotomy without anaesthesia would be preferable to flying out to Los Angeles (a city I was happy to be rid of the last time I left in 2002) and being thrust into a situation where I always have to be “on” and charming and cheerful, like a carnie, trying to tempt people to part with their cash.  (Although, of course, buying poetry is a better deal than any carnival game—and at least you don’t get snookered.)  But I’m always fine once I get to a place.  It’s the getting there, and the pre-anxiety (and the fact that I had a raging case of bronchitis—can I ever get through a Spring without it?  Geez!), that always cast a pall.

2016-03-31 08.53.04But I had a great time at AWP.  While I missed some interesting panels (being married to the booth for the entire time), I made up for it by being excellent at getting people to subscribe to the Atlanta Review.  Among the three of us—Dan Veach (now Editor Emeritus of AR), Karen (the new Editor), and me—we sold 42 or 43 subscriptions, sold out of all the journals that Dan brought with him (he brought 120 copies!), and met and encouraged lots of poets to send us their work.  I expect we’ll have quite the slush pile once Karen and I take over!  And that’s good because the more people who know about the Atlanta Review, the more we can spread our influence and get new readers and conquer the poetry world, Mwahahahah!  (Ah, sorry, I lost my head for a minute.  But you take my point.)  We want to continue Dan’s success with the journal, and between Karen and me, I think we waded into this new endeavor with aplomb.  And Collin Kelley was at the table off-and-on, and he is always one of my favorite people.

write buttonsOf course, what I always forget about AWP is how much fun the Book Fair is.  Especially when the swag is so good.  And it was pretty good this year.  The hot giveaway was buttons—everyone was giving away buttons, and so my AWP lanyard was bespangled with them from all manner of journals, the London Review of Books, PoetLore, Five Points, Sierra Nevada College’s “This Sh*t Is Lit,” “Poetry Changes Everything,” and nearly two dozen more. (I was all about the buttons—and even got several compliments from random peeps about my lanyard.  The best one sported a picture of a catalope (cat with antlers)—of course I can’t remember what journal I picked that one up at—I really wanted to buy a tee shirt from them, but they were out.)  (Also, we’re totally giving away buttons next year at the AR table—we totally need to swag it up.)

write poetry fresher

 

Other swag of note:  Poetry gave away car air fresheners.  I am totally mystified by this choice.  It smells vaguely piney, and also like antiseptic.  And ass.  Not really the smell your car longs for.  But on the back is the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer, published in Poetry in August 1913, which is kind of nice.  Permafrost gave away a squishy stress-ball in the shape of a polar bear (awesome) as well as free copies of their journal.  There was one booth that as I was leaving the Book Fair for the day had some earbuds lying around.  I’m pretty sure they were giving them away…they had several pairs sitting on the table… but if not—if I accidentally liberated them—then I can add kleptomania to my list of skills, along with poetry and sarcasm.  (It’s good to diversify, you know.)

write bear

 

Then there was the booth with this one woman who apparently is a self-publishing machine. (I’m withholding her name in case my ridicule gets out of hand—but she shares a name with a famous early 20th century woman poet.)  I mean, she was probably 80, wizened like the Southwest—she looked like New Mexico—and draped in scarves and flowing skirts, and had stacks of her books in front of her like a fortress—all published through Amazon.  No matter how I tried to extricate myself from her clutches, she would not let me leave—she kept wanting me to purchase her books.

As soon as I’d inch away, she’d thrust another of her books into my hands, telling me how her life had been changed and how these poems represent her experience.  She gave me one book to take with me—which I totally thought was a catalogue describing her various books, with a few poems in between ads for her other books—and when I got back to the hotel, it turns out she was actually selling that book—there was a price of $18.95 stamped on the back.  (I was like, dafuq?  Really? Who would buy that??) Anyway, when she saw she could not entice me to purchase her whole corpus of books, she foisted her most recent one on me—which actually, from a graphic design standpoint, seems really kind of nice—the cover is lovely, and it looks like a real book of poetry, not something from a vanity press.  But I mean, how good can these poems be?  The first line of copy on the back cover states, “These new poems were all written during the first two months of 2016…” and the pub date is March 5.  I guess I am being a poetry snob.  I haven’t read the book yet—it could be wonderful.  But I’m not holding my breath.

Another book that was given to me for free was Jessie Carty’s Practicing Disaster (Kelsay Books/ Aldrich Press 2014).  I have a bit more faith in this book, although its title on the cover is written in shitty Comic Sans.  (Really?  Like who thought that was a good idea?)  The inside cover has the author’s name signed and the line “Not a joke—free poetry” with a smiley face.  And the acknowledgements list at the front of the book is quite impressive—among the places that Carty has published work include Eye Socket Journal, The Dead Mule, Blue Fifth Review, and Poet’s Market 2013.  So, I’ll try to read through it at some point.

write booksAs far as purchased books, I bought Parades by Sara Deniz Akant (OmniDawn 2014), and Hungry Moon by Henrietta Goodman (Colorado State 2013) (which kind of got banged up on the flight home—c’est la vie).  And the stack of journals I picked up is impressive—Moon City Review, New South, Southern Indiana Review, Rock and Sling, Michigan Quarterly Review, Sugar House Review (which has a beautiful cover), the Laurel Review, and several others—all of which will be seeing submissions from me in the near future—hahah.

write journalsOf course one of the things people flock to AWP for is all the famous people, as well as catching up with old friends.  I didn’t meet any famousy-famous people, though I did get to meet Kelli Russel Agodon, of Two Sylvias Press (a press that makes lovely little books), who is one of my heroes (I love her as a poet and as an editor), and who tweets great material always (follow her if you don’t:  @KelliAgodon).  So meeting her at the Two Sylvias table was so nice—I was fulsome enough in talking to her, I think she felt like she had to hug me.  But we had a nice little convo.  And I did get to see some old Nebraska alums—Liz Ahl, who I always forget how divine she is (we had drinks with her at Tom’s Urban, in L.A. Live, across from the Convention Center), and Darryl Farmer, who was here at Georgia Tech too for a little while, before moving off to the wilds of Alaska.  But overall, not as many Nebraska folks as I expected to see.  (I went over to the Prairie Schooner table, thinking there might be someone from the old days, but I didn’t know any of those people.)  I would have liked to see a few more, at least.  (I did see another UNL alum, who, as always, looked right through me, the putz.  I refuse to mention him by name, but a pox on his head.)

2016-04-01 16.41.19

View from the Santa Monica Pier

Not at the conference, I met up with my old best friend/ enemy/ boyfriend-ish/ not boyfriend-ish/  “I’m gay” “No kidding” “Why didn’t you tell me?” “I thought you knew” / best friend again from back in my USC Trojan days.  We spent late Friday afternoon and Friday evening walking all over Santa Monica—we walked from Wilshire Blvd. to the Pier, and up and down the Pier, and along the beach for a long stretch (geezus, the water was cold as fuck), and then up and down the Third Street Promenade about three or four times, tried finding a movie to watch (we went to the movies all the time when I lived out there), went out to dinner, ate liquid nitrogen ice cream at Creams & Dreams, and then hung out at his place in Venice to watch Brooklyn—a great (if slow-paced slice-of-lifey movie… about 10 minutes into it, I thought, “This is so my Mom’s kind of movie”).  I didn’t get back to the hotel till well after midnight.  But it was so good to see him… and fun to tool around L.A. like we did when we were younger.

Anyway, I’m glad to be back, I won’t lie.  I need to recharge my introvert batteries which were sadly depleted while I was away.  And mostly I need to…

write like a mofo          …And so do you.

Oh,Venice, Mi Manchi

Underneath day’s azure eyes,
Ocean’s nursling, Venice, lies—
A peopled labyrinth of walls,
Amphitrite’s destined halls,
Which her hoary sire now paves
With his blue and beaming waves.

—from P.B. Shelley’s “View from the Euganean Hills”

I’ve been dreaming about Venice off and on for the last several weeks (in between dreams about houses missing an outside wall, pun-offs with Bob Wood—not as funny as it sounds, btw—or reading books with weird languages in them).  It’s almost strange how Venice has crystallized into this mythic place in my mind—and I want so much to go back there, and enjoy it in a way I didn’t enjoy it two years ago.  Like I really want to get lost there for maybe 3 weeks—but this time, I’d have my phone and a good map and I’d be on my own time table, and so it would be a controlled “lost”—I could explore at my will, and learn the city at my own pace, and see all the art (that I didn’t see before), and find interesting little alleys (that I didn’t have to map in my notebook so I could find my way back out of them), and visit the churches and the gardens and the other islands and the shopping districts (that I had to skip).  I just didn’t have that time before.

(To wit:  think about how the first day I was there was a complete wash, stranded as I was in the airport; the second day, I stayed in bed trying to recover from the emotional trauma of first day as well as from jet lag, and I was completely money-less except for maybe like €3 [which I spent on 2 cans of ambrosia of the gods Lemon Fanta] because I needed to find a bank—so that was 2 days out of 6 down.  And then of course I was there for work, and I was on someone else’s schedule.)

By the end of that week, I was finally getting a feel for the city, and could make my way around with some autonomy—and then, hello, I had to leave.  But it was in those last couple of days that I fell in love with Venice and realized that there’s a Venice book in me (right?  all the writers who’ve been to Venice—Shakespeare, Henry James, the Romantics, plus gobs of others—fall in love with the city and thinks there’s a book in them about it), but I really need to get back in that milieu and absorb the rhythms and sounds and textures of the place to be able to write it.  Or at least to write it with some authenticity, with the flavor of presence, and not just the hazy taste of memory.

I want to experience some of the touristy things—like take a gondola ride or visit the Peggy Guggenheim museum—and drink Aperol in every bar, and walk until I’m so tired all I can do is stumble upon little out-of-the way cafes and write for a couple of hours before I’m ready to walk back home.  That would be my dream:  to go back there (not in high summer—maybe, February, when it’s cold and rainy, the off-season for cruise ships—such weather would not deter my enthusiasm at all) and write and write and write and eat and drink and write.  There’s a reason that staying in Venice was an expected stop on the Grand Tour for like centuries—because it’s a capital of culture (yes, yes, dead, white, male, upper class, Eurocentric culture—spare me the lecture), and putting yourself in that space, away from your home space, gives you a different perspective on the world.  Maybe not a big difference in perspective—it’s still Western, it still has wi-fi—but it certainly influences your thought patterns.  It’s certainly also influenced my writing—and I keep coming back to writing those little prose poem/ memoir hybrid pieces (like the one I was nominated for a Pushcart for).  I have a number of them.  I think there are more inside me though.  Another trip to Venice would coax them out, I bet… (Haha.)

Speaking of things (roundabout) Venetian, I have to go to AWP’s annual chaos of a conference at the end of the month in Los Angeles as part of my new duties for The Atlanta Review.  I do not look forward to the conference; it’s gargantuan, spread out over multiple hotels, full of 50,000 writers (and that’s not my usual hyperbole) rushing to panels and readings (and apparently, I’m reading too—so great, now I have to figure out what the hell to read)—but I hope that I can get out to Venice Beach (or Santa Monica) for a little bit of time.  I need to see the ocean up close and personal, because it’s been a while (at least 14 years since I’ve seen the Pacific).  And Venice Beach, for all the times I’ve visited, always amuses me.  It’s quirky and endearing and strange, and I dig that.  Again, like so much of my time in L.A. in past, I will be sans auto, so not sure how I’ll get out there.  And a $60 taxi ride wouldn’t be my first choice for transportation, much as I’d like to go… But I’ll figure that out when I get there.  Who knows, maybe I’ll write a few Venice Beach poems.  That could be interesting.

As for Venice, Italy, I’ll get back there some day.  My book will still be waiting for me to write it.

grand canal image 06.24.14

A picture I took, maybe of the Grand Canal (I can’t remember), June 24, 2014.

Now Trending in the Poetry World, the Poetry Project Book (Is It #PoetryProjectBook Yet?)

Coming up with an idea for a Wednesday Post has eluded me today.  I don’t feel well (a lurking migraine I think), and so consequently, my brain is a little foggy.  What gems can I impart on writing when I mostly just want to be in bed with the covers pulled over my head?  Maybe I need to forget gems and just be happy with bits of flint and granite.

Anyway, I read an article on the AWP website, Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s “The Poetry Project Book:  a Marriage of Heart and Mind” which discusses a trend she’s noticed in poetry books lately to be “obsessed” with an idea to the point that all of the poems within the book focus on a single guiding image or kind of form.  She argues that poets are writing these books because it offers the beauty of constraint while allowing a kind of “arc” to appear in a book of poetry that doesn’t normally appear in books where poems are about all manner of subjects—where the poems are true “collections” that demonstrate a breadth of a poet’s writing across time.

This trend appears more frequent in MFA theses, she notes, which are then (not surprisingly) flooding the contest market.  I think this approach to writing poetry changes the expectations of a poetry book. We want a book to be “about” something–not just be a collection of poems.  Of course, there are plenty of books that are more traditional in their collection-ness—these aren’t going anywhere—but I’ve even noticed just in reading some journal guidelines lately that ask for poems on related subjects.

So it’s no wonder, if journals are looking for related poems, that writers are writing entire books focused on a single issue.  I’m trying to think of books I’ve read lately—one was entirely focused on Persephone, one was focused on birds, another was illness and cancer—if you write 50+ poems on the same topic, it does make it easier to understand a book, to see where the author is going with her words.  Just this morning, Benjamin Dodds sent me a packet of poems to read from the verse novel he’s working on (I won’t give the topic away, don’t worry, Benjamin), and when the poems are all related it does lend a kind of urgency to them that might be missing when they’re all focused on different subject matter. The connection makes them more compelling—and I think that’s what Hoffman was arguing.

She also mentions that these poetry project books can fail spectacularly.  Can you just imagine if you read a collection and each poem centered on something tedious… like a motorcycle?  Sure, there’s cohesion, but who gives a fuck?

So I guess in that “marriage of heart and mind” that Hoffman discusses, an author has to balance her obsession with a topic that can reach a wider audience. I have to admit, when Hoffman referenced Nicky Beer’s The Octopus Game, which came out earlier this year from Carnegie Mellon, a book of poems that’s all about octopi, I thought, Oh, yeah, I would totally read that.  Who doesn’t like octopi? I like octopi.  I think they’re kind of cool.  I think a book full of octopus poems could totally work—Hoffman thinks Beer has plenty of relevant and urgent things to say in those poems.  I might actually buy that book from Amazon–in fact I’ve put it in my cart…  Whereas, if someone came out with a poetry project on motorcycles, I’d probably fall asleep before I could turn the first page.

This poetry project topic interests me in general because as I’ve said on a few occasions, I need a “hook” for my writing—something to get excited about.  Something to really go into detail with a kind of obsessive delight.  That focusing element that would at least help me get past that moment of inertia where I’m all, “I don’t know what to write about.  I have nothing to say.  Let me go look at cat pictures on tumblr.”

I feel as if I had a “obsession” like that, it might actually make writing easier.  It gives you something to rally around.  When I got back from Venice last year, I wrote seven poems about it.  I wish I could back to Venice because if ever a place was an inspiration, Venice is it.  I know I could write 50+ poems about Venice—but I need longer than a week to be there.  A month might do it.  Maybe two.  But that’s not happening any time soon.

So all of this is by way of saying that I like the poetry project approach to writing books.  It makes sense to me.  I’ve been thinking that it’s time I put together another chapbook.  But then I look at all my poems (particularly the published ones) and I don’t see any cohesive thread—I don’t see how they create an arc, how they work together.  And that is deadly when it comes to creating a collection—deadly because it’s hard to do, and deadly because potential publishers don’t know what to do with them lately, or so it seems.

Anyway, I know I’m a little all over the place today.  I’m sorry about that.  Go read Hoffman’s article–it’s interesting.  And if any of my five readers have a suggestion of topics for me to get excited about and write 50+ poems, please let me know.  That would be extremely cool of you.

Between 5 Degrees N & S Latitude

With registration going on, my creative impulses have gone right out the window.  You might think the reverse would be true:  that the tedium and minutia of my job that currently preoccupies my lower-functioning mind would allow the higher-functioning part to be working overtime on things creative.  But alas, that is not the case.  I’ve hit the doldrums–though hopefully it won’t go past April 23rd (when registration suspends).

Part of the problem, of course, is the DYPS hasn’t met for several weeks–first it was Spring Break; and then it was the week after Spring Break, but no one but Bob could come; and then this week was AWP.  So three Thursdays have passed and I haven’t been “required” to produce, which is bad–I need that discipline or I’m a slug.  To be fair, I’ve been kicking around a Sibley Sister poem, but I just don’t know about the ending–and I’m not talking about “Best Served Cold,” the poem that’s been futzed with and “tweaked” to death, and still no one likes the end. (Because it’s crappy.)

Everyone knows ending poems (with, if not a transcendent “ah” experience, at least a resolute “yes”) is hard, but they seem especially hard with the Sibley poems.  I’ve mentioned before how I want these poems to do alot, but it’s hard to get it on one page.

But at this point, it’s hard to get anything on a page.  I’m in a rut–and it’s not just the poems (but I don’t want to go into it.)  Maybe it’s just time to do some more reading–I’ve got a ton I could read, that might inspire me.  Maybe I should take a break and write something else.  Or maybe I just need to “put on my Big Girl panties and deal with it”–“write through the pain”– “embrace the struggle”… or whatever other hackney phrase people say when they have to deal with annoying, whiny-ass, self-pitying, self-indulgent, poor-me-I-have-writer’s-block-my-life-is-so-tragic brats like me.

*Sob.*