Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Importance of Persistence for a Writer

Sometimes a writer becomes so popular, so suddenly, that you wonder how it happened. In the late 1980s, the fiction writer Ann Beattie was on fire. All her stories were appearing in The New Yorker. A novel was in the works, there were rumors of a movie contract.

Ann Beattie
I was a fan of Ann Beattie’s—I still am. Her short story “La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans” in Secrets and Surprises is still among my favorites. But I have to admit that I was furiously jealous of Ann Beattie. She’s only five years older than I am, and she was the most popular young writer in the United States at the time.

In 1978 I went to hear Ann Beattie read at the Sheridan Square Bookstore in New York. The room was packed—I had to sit on the floor because there were no more chairs. Ann Beattie gave an excellent reading, but a part of me was holding back from really appreciating it, because I couldn’t stop envying her.

After the reading there was a Q&A, and someone blurted out the question we all had in mind: “How did you first get published in The New Yorker?” I probably wasn’t the only person in the audience who was thinking She probably slept with an editor or had a friend who edited stories there.

Ann Beattie took a deep breath. Maybe she had heard this question many times before and she was controlling her temper. If she was, she was doing a good job. “Well, the first nineteen stories I sent to The New Yorker, they rejected. I went back and worked on my writing. The twentieth story, they accepted.”

All right, I thought, if that’s how Ann Beattie got published in The New Yorker, more power to her. 

How many of us have that persistence? Not just to keep sending our work out when most of the responses are rejections, but to keep refining and correcting our work. Sometimes, it takes the kind of persistence involved in sending your work twenty times to the same magazine, improving it each time.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Are Correct Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation Important for Creative Writing?

I have to confess that I have a visceral reaction when I see creative writers or literary magazines use incorrect grammar, spelling, or punctuation. For instance, I recently browsed the website of a new, online magazine that is calling for submissions for what they describe as “non-fiction.” For some reason, these editors, who aspire to be at the forefront of their genre, don’t know that “nonfiction” has not had a hyphen for at least ten years. Given how easy it is to look up spellings online, is there any excuse for that sort of error?

Did Shakespeare use “correct” grammar and spelling?
How important is it for writers to use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation? Some of us are more particular about these mistakes. Those slips and lapses bother me a great deal. They indicate to me a lack of seriousness and professionalism. For a writer not to use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation is like a would-be lover who dresses up for a date but puts his sweater on inside out.

Maybe I’m influenced by the fact that I make my living as an editor. I traffic in rules of language and usage on a daily basis.

I have to keep reminding myself that the rules for spelling, grammar, and punctuation in English are a relatively recent phenomenon. Grammar and spelling began to be codified in the late eighteenth century. Shakespeare, for example, spelled words differently all the time, and he often made what we would call grammatical mistakes, using phrases such as “more fitter,” or “more sweet.” See the fascinating essay on this topic by Professor Karl Tamburr, “Why Shakespeare Didn’t Know Grammar.”

Not everyone has the same tolerance or intolerance for errors of grammar, spelling, or punctuation, anymore than everyone wakes up on the weekend at the same hour. My biggest quarrel with incorrect usage is that it leads to confusion. That is where rules become more than just conventions. 

Some authors feel as if their work is just the creative side of writing. That’s why they became a poet or novelist or playwright and not a journalist. They sweat the details when it comes to characters, plot, dialogue, imagery, the music of language, etc. “Don’t bother me about grammar and spelling, that’s what they pay copyeditors for.” Yes, but isn’t that a bit like expecting someone to clean up after you? Do I detect a bit of elitism in that attitude?

There are other class and cultural issues here. Those with a more polished education often have a firmer command of the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. I find that my students in the large public university where I’m now teaching creative writing are less likely to know these norms than students in elite private colleges, who had more expensive educations.

My mother, Mickey Rogow, was a product of the New York City public school system. She ingrained in me from an early age the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The child of immigrants, my mother learned English as new Americans often do, with an accent, since Yiddish was also spoken in her home. Attending elementary school in the slums of Harlem and the South Bronx, she had teachers from the previous groups of immigrants who made fun of her accent and her mistakes in English. To her, making errors was not simply a matter of academic rules. It was evidence that you might not sufficiently belong to U.S. society, that you were a greenhorn, fresh off the boat, someone with less of a claim to being and remaining American. That’s partly why the rules of English are not just arbitrary conventions to me. They are shibboleths that demonstrate that you are an accepted part of society.

Should we look beyond that somewhat colonial heritage to reject the rules of the dominant culture? I do believe that creative writers have the ability and the right to make their own rules. I love the creative way that Ntozake Shange has invented her own spellings and punctuation to render Black English on the page in a lively and accurate way:

she wuz sullen
& the rhinestones etchin the corners of her mouth
suggested tears
fresh kisses that had done no good

from “one,” for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf


But that’s a different story, when you set out to make your own rules. If your goal is to follow the rules of standard English grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and you fail to do that correctly, be aware that some editors, and some readers, may judge you.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Writers and Collaboration, Part 3: Writers Working Together—Breton’s Earthlight

In the first two blogs in this series, I’ve talked about collaborations where an artist, such as an illustrator or composer, interprets the work of a writer. I’ve also discussed projects where a writer repurposes text already written, for instance, turning a poem into a children’s picture book.

In this post I’m going to talk about two or more writers working together to create a new work. One area where I’ve done this quite a bit is literary translation.

The first book that I translated was a collaboration with writer/translator Bill Zavatsky. 


It’s a funny story how this collaboration began. In the late 1970s, I was a young poet just starting out, living in New York City. Bill Zavatsky was a relatively established writer—two books of Bill’s poems were in print and he was the publisher of two literary magazines, Sun, and Roy Rogers. The latter was a wild child of Sun for special projects such as the memorable 100-page issue devoted entirely to one-line poems.

I was a totally unknown writer (mostly I still am!), living in a fifth-floor walkup in the East Village with a bathtub in the kitchen. At the time, I was going out with another poet, a woman named Susan, who was taking a creative writing workshop with Bill Zavatsky at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church. I was translating early poems by the French surrealist, André Breton, because I loved them, and because I wanted to hear what Breton’s unbridled stream of consciousness sounded like in American English.

Susan knew that Bill had an interest in Breton and she urged me to send a few of my translations to Bill for publication in his magazine, Sun. I did. Months went by. I heard nothing.

Then in the summer of 1977, Susan and I crashed a publication party at the Gotham Book Mart on West 47th Street, ironically in the heart of the diamond district where Hassidic jewelers sold stones for engagement rings. I think the book being launched that day was John Ashbery’s poetry collection Houseboat Days. I knew almost no one at the party (certainly not John Ashbery!) There were a few familiar faces, as anonymous as mine, but Susan spotted Bill Zavatsky in the crowd. I was too shy to talk to him—after all, Bill actually was chatting with John Ashbery. Susan literally pushed me to approach Bill about my Breton translations.

I did talk with Bill, and to my amazement, the reason he hadn’t gotten back to me about my translations was not because he hated them, but because he had been extremely busy. Bill suggested that since he was also translating poems from the same period in Breton’s work, we should collaborate on translating a book of Breton’s poetry.

A lesson here for less established poets—you may have more to bring to a collaboration than you think. Although Bill was a widely published poet, editor, and translator, he had not studied French for as many years as I had or spent as much time in France. I did have something to bring to the mix. We also had a similar vision of creating a version of Breton informed by the language of the Beat Generation and the New York School writers who had been influenced by the surrealists. (Read Breton’s poem “Free Union” and then Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and you’ll see what I mean.)

Bill and I set about to translate roughly two hundred pages of Breton’s collection Earthlight (Clair de terre), including many of the surrealist’s best poems. For me, the collaboration was an apprenticeship. Bill was the older and more experienced poet and he brought a wealth of knowledge about the practice of translation that I learned a great deal from. He was also more widely read. 

Bill Zavatsky
But for Bill, I think it was useful to have someone on the team who had a firm grounding in French grammar, vocabulary, and culture, and could say, “Breton is probably referring to the town of Pont-à-Mousson because most of the manhole covers in Paris are made in that town and are stamped with that name.”

Collaborations between writers are not symmetrical. If every writer brought the same set of skills, we wouldn’t need to collaborate. Different writers bring different knowledge to the mix. On the other hand, there has to be some common ground for the writers to compromise and enjoy one another’s work.

Bill and I worked on the translation of Breton’s Earthlight off and on for seventeen years. Through many vicissitudes, we always kept our vision for the book in sight. When Earthlight finally appeared in print for the first time in 1994, it won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Award, which at that time was the annual prize for the best translation into English.

I’m excited to announce that our translation of Earthlight by André Breton has just been re-released by Black Widow Press. The new edition not only includes the French text en face for the first time, it has an updated introduction and notes that Bill contributed, incorporating the latest scholarship from France on Breton and his sources.

I’m delighted to see the book finally published as Bill and I had first imagined it forty years ago. This edition is bilingual with extensive notes to provide background on Breton’s encyclopedic interest in the occult, politics, botany, zoology, art, and history, and the way they infused his wild and passionate poetry.


My collaboration with Bill Zavatsky not only led to the publication of Earthlight, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
Writers and Collaboration, Part 1, Part 2
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Homage to Marilyn Sachs, 1927–2016

Acclaimed children’s writer Marilyn Sachs passed away on December 28, 2016. Author of more than forty books, Marilyn played an important role in children’s literature as it moved from the idealized and sentimental stories of the 1950s to more realistic situations and multidimensional characters that developed in the 1960s and beyond. Her books inspired deep loyalties in children who strongly identified with her heroines. Marilyn was also my literary mentor during the time she was my mother-in-law from 1986 to 1998.

Marilyn Sachs
When I think about Marilyn I always recall the apartment where she lived for more than four decades on 31st Avenue in the San Francisco’s Richmond District. That flat was a temple to art, filled with the wonderful woodcarvings of female figures by her husband of seventy years (yes, seventy years!), the sculptor and political activist, Morris Sachs. All of Morris’s statues have Marilyn’s wide hips.

The Sachs apartment also held many works by artists whom Marilyn and Morris had befriended once they moved to the Bay Area in 1960: a print of farm workers in a field by Emmy Lou Packard; and furiously charcoaled figures by Ethel Weiner Guttman. There were Navajo blankets on the walls of the dining room, and Persian carpets on the parquet floors, as well as a table in the breakfast room that Morris himself crafted from a redwood tree burl.

In that apartment, Marilyn entertained a river of guests. A master of the art of conversation, Marilyn could draw out the shyest person. She was not afraid to toss in her two cents with even the most gregarious visitors. Marilyn once taught me that you could tell how interested a person was in what you were saying by their occasional unconscious replies. “Uh huh, uh huh,” means polite interest, but the person is mostly bored, and you should change the topic. “Yeah, yeah,” on the other hand, means “Tell me more!”

There were always travelers passing through San Francisco having tea or dinner at the Sachs’s apartment. Marilyn was the most entertaining of hosts, keeping everyone laughing with her sharp witticisms delivered with her unpretentious, New York accent.

Marilyn’s work as a writer was evident in her study, which had an entire wall decorated with photos and letters sent by devoted fans who had written personal appreciations of her books. Her novels particularly appealed to what is oddly called in the trade, “the middle-aged child”kids from 10 to 14—pre-teens. Marilyn understood that age group extremely well, partly because she could recall so many great anecdotes from her own life during those years, anecdotes that often found their way into her novels.

At the time Marilyn started writing, children’s books in the 1950s were often artificially sweet and innocent, particularly those with female main characters. These novels often portrayed unrealistic, idealized situations. I’m thinking, for example, of Sidney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family, published in 1951, with five sisters whose worst problem seemed to be finding a misplaced a library book.

Marilyn spent many years as a children’s librarian in the Brooklyn and San Francisco Public Library systems. In New York, she worked on a bookmobile that brought reading to far-flung neighborhoods, many not near a local library. She became convinced that real children needed more naturalistic fiction that reflected their real-life problems.

Marilyn wrote her first book, Amy Moves In, around 1954, but the novel was so unlike most of the children’s literature of the time that it took her ten years to get the manuscript published. In that book, the mother of the two sisters is hit by a car, and the girls have to become self-sufficient in a way that many children must do when there is an absent or ill parent. Amy Moves In is still in print five decades later.

Marilyn also depicted Jewish American characters in a way that no other children’s writer had done before. In All-of-a-Kind Family, for instance, the main characters seem to be incessantly lighting candles for Hanukah or Shabbat. Marilyn showed the lives of American Jews as she knew it from growing up on the tough streets of the South Bronx in New York City.

Marilyn almost never wrote a bad book, to my mind. She was an incredibly consistent writer. She’s best known for The Bears’ House and Veronica Ganz, two stories of compelling misfits, Marilyn’s preferred heroes.

Among my personal favorites of her books is Call Me Ruth, a historical novel about a girl whose single-parent father is a labor leader in the garment industry in the early 1900s in New York. 


Although Call Me Ruth is a deeply sympathetic and well-researched portrayal of the trade union movement, the character of the mother is complex and believable. She’s a true crusader for social justice, but a neglectful mom. This is just one of her books that shows the influence of the great novelists, such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Willa Cather, whose work she read over and over with enormous enjoyment and profound understanding of how those authors structured their fictions.

Another favorite of mine is one of Marilyn’s last books, The Four Ugly Cats in Apartment 3D. This novella is about a girl who finds several cats abandoned by a neighbor and has to get them all adopted quickly to prevent them from being put down. It’s interesting that the apartment number is 3D. Marilyn is a three-dimensional children’s writer if ever there was one. She expertly combines humor and pathos—for me, the signature of the best writers.

In addition to being an award-winning and enormously prolific writer, turning out more than a book a year during her prime, Marilyn was also a mentor to many authors and illustrators. Judy Blume credited Marilyn with being both an inspiration and a help to her when she was first attempting to get her own groundbreaking and realistic fiction published. Marilyn was also an influential member of a circle of talented children’s book authors and illustrators in the San Francisco Bay Area that included Beverly Gherman, Susan Meyers, Maxine Rose Schnur, Susan Terris (also a poet and editor), and Ashley Wolff.

Marilyn was also a mentor to me. I attempted, unsuccessfully, to write my own young adult novel, in emulation of her accomplishments. When I showed Marilyn the manuscript, she had one cryptic and wise comment I’ll never forget: “Don’t try to tie up all the loose ends.”

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

It Takes More Than One Book to Make a Writer

There’s a great line in the classic Hollywood movie Shanghai Express where a man says to Marlene Dietrich, who is playing the role of Shanghai Lily: “I see you’ve changed your name since we last met. Did you get married?” To which Dietrich replies in her breathy German accent, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” Well, it takes more than one book to make a writer.

Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express 
The first time we write a book, we’re often just fumbling around, trying to find our unique calling as an artist. Everything is new to us: themes, characters, style, approach, diction. Often the first book, even if it takes years to write, is just practice, a dress rehearsal for another project. And, sorry to say, that can be true of the second or third or fourth book as well.

It may take the better part of a lifetime to really figure out what your project is, and how to realize that project.

Then how do you know if you really can be a writer, if you spend years on different books and none of them works out quite the way you had hoped? Well, even a book that you might consider to have fallen short of your expectations might have passages that show your true abilities as a writer. That page, that stanza, that paragraph, that chapter—if you can figure out what you did right there, and get yourself into the state of mind you were in when you wrote that, you can possibly sustain that higher level of work for a longer stretch, maybe even an entire book.

In order to do that, though, you’ve got to be willing to listen to criticism, hear the truth about your work, and implement it in your writing. And not just the praise of your friends who love you and can't see your work objectively. You have to get that objective feedback because on your own, it’s extremely difficult to identify the strongest elements in your work. Often the difference between talent and a writer who consistently turns out quality work is the ability to take criticism seriously, and to learn from it. It’s OK to make mistakes, as long as you don’t keep repeating them.

I know that it’s tempting to give up after a book or two if the end product isn’t as good as what you’d imagined when you first got the inspiration. It’s so much easier to take up throwing pots, or hip-hop dance, or playing the didgeridoo. When you first start a new art, you learn so much, so fast. It’s thrilling. You feel as if you’re making enormous progress. But then the hard work always sets in—learning from your mistakes, revising, polishing. No art is easy.


It may be that you are better suited to pottery or hip-hop dance. Didgeridoo, or didgeridon’t, either way it’s cool. If that is the art that energizes you, more power to you. But if your dream is really to be a writer, don’t give up after one book or two or three. You don’t get to be Shanghai Lily overnight.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Writers and Collaboration, Part 2: Repurposing Existing Content

In the last blog I talked about collaborations where the writer doesn’t have to change much in an existing work. The example I gave is when a poet has his or her work illustrated by a visual artist.

In this blog, I’m going to discuss collaborations where a writer repurposes existing text to create a new work with another artist. Here are some examples:

• Adapt a work of narrative prose into a play (for more, please see this blog)
• Turn one of your poems into a song lyric and collaborate with a composer who writes the music
• Edit a literary anthology that includes work by a visual artist or artists
• Work with an artist to create an artist’s book that includes text that you rewrite for the project

One example in my own work of text repurposed for a collaboration is an adult poem I wrote that became a children’s picture book. The book started as a two-page poem called “Oranges” that appeared in my collection A Preview of the Dream, published by Gull Books, a literary publishing house run by Carolyn Bennett. A Preview of the Dream sold all of 200 copies, which is not unusual for a small press book of poems.

Cover art by Rachael Romero
My poem “Oranges” honors the diverse group of people whose labor goes into creating a single orange:

Somebody cleared the fields.
Somebody toppled the pines,
upturned the stumps.
Someone plowed the rows
straight as sunbeams in the heat
that made them swab their temples.
Probably they spoke Spanish.

The widely published and much lauded children’s writer Marilyn Sachs heard me read the poem and said, “With a little rewriting, that could be a picture book.” I’d never thought of writing a children’s book, so I asked her what she meant by rewriting the text. Marilyn pointed out that the ending was a little too adult for children:

A world of work
is in this ripe orange that I strip apart,
longitude by longitude.
I place a section
in my willing mouth
and its liquid fibers
dissolve on my tongue.

When I wrote that adult poem, I wanted to emphasize the sexiness of eating a section of orange. But in a children’s picture book?—not so much. I kept much of the poem as it was, but I rewrote the last lines:

A world of work
is in this ripe orange that I pry apart.
I place a section
in my mouth
and its liquid fibers
dissolve on my tongue.

Less sexy, but it still conveys some of the sensual experience of eating fruit, and in a way that children could appreciate.

A lesson I learned here: with collaboration, not every detail in a text has to be spelled out. The artwork ended up conveying much of the sensual experience of eating an orange. 

Oranges by Zack Rogow, illustration by Mary Szilagyi
Not only that, the illustrator communicated the entire concept of an orange containing a world of work  simply by drawing a frontispiece with an orange floating in space like a planet.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The book was still only an idea. How to get it in print? Carolyn Bennett, the publisher of the small press book that included the poem, agreed to act as the agent for the text. Sometimes, in a collaboration, people take on unaccustomed roles.

Carolyn did great job in this new role. She sent the text to Richard Jackson, an editor at Orchard Books who had successfully steered the careers of many writers, including Judy Blume. It happened, by coincidence, that Dick Jackson was interested in a book that dealt with diversity—he immediately bought the manuscript. It was an incredible stroke of luck, but it would never have happened without rewriting the text. That repurposing made all the difference.


I originally had in mind for the drawings an artist I liked who had never done book illustration. Dick Jackson quickly let me know that he had his own ideas on this subject. Dick selected the experienced illustrator Mary Szilagyi, and Mary created gorgeous paintings to illustrate the book, working much harder on her artwork than I had on my short text. The hours spent on a collaboration don’t always even out, I’m afraid.

Large publishers do tend to like to pick the illustrator they want for a children’s book that comes to them as a text. They have a stable of artists whose work they admire and they know they can rely on. The publishers like to give those artists a steady diet of work, partly because they genuinely like their artwork, partly to keep the artists’ loyalty, and partly to support and promote their careers.

Dick Jackson made a truly excellent suggestion to improve the text, but I was such a young, hothead radical at the time, that I refused to listen, thinking that Big Business was trying to co-opt my political message. This was a side of collaboration I hadn’t learned yet—it also involves taking advice, even if it means changing your beloved text.

But in the end, Oranges turned out to be a successful children’s book. It was selected as a Junior Library Guild Book of the Month, and it sold about 10,000 copies. Much more than all of my poetry books put together. That’s another side of writers’ collaborations worth mentioning—the work of other artists can sometimes make literature way more accessible.

Writers and Collaboration, Part 1, Part 3

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Writers and Collaboration: Part 1—Working with Illustrators

I’ve been involved in many different collaborations in my career as a writer. These projects have been among the most exciting, rewarding, and well received that I’ve ever worked on. This series of blogs will discuss collaborations and writers—how collaborations function, and the pros and cons of working together with others.

The first type of collaboration I’d like to discuss is working with visual artists who illustrate a book or poem. There is a collective product at the end of this sort of collaboration, but the author does not necessarily engage in much collaborative work. The writer could, if the artist is open to suggestions or ideas from the author. In some cases, though, the two artists work separately. Often the visual artist is interpreting or reacting to the work of the writer.

I’ve worked with visual artists who have illustrated some of my books of poetry. I collaborated with the fantastic artist Linda Touby, for instance, on my very first book, Glimmerings. I met Linda before she became a well-known painter whose work is displayed in U.S. embassies and many private collections. 

Linda Touby
I got to know Linda in a figure drawing classes at the venerable Art Students League in New York City in the mid-1970s. Linda was the star of that class, turning out gorgeous sketches of the nude models, and breaking all the rules that the instructors were setting for us.

For one thing, Linda never used shading or modeling to define shapes. She had such a command of line that she could suggest volumes just by the way she waltzed the tip of a pen around the page. I admired Linda’s work enormously, and I was thrilled when this skilled artist agreed to illustrate my poems.


There’s a lesson for writers here—you may think that your work is not up to the level of a potential collaborator, but you still might find that there is common ground for a joint project. Don’t be afraid to ask another artist or writer you admire to work together.

I was extremely lucky to work with longtime friend Ilse Gordon on my book Make It Last. Ilse’s lovely ink drawings created a unified look to the collection that in many ways defines the aesthetic of the book. 


Ilse is multitalented. Her work includes luscious oil paintings, as well as furnishings such as painted screens and tables that she tiles herself. 

The incredibly gifted artist Rachael Romero did the cover for my book A Preview of the Dream. I admired Rachael’s work from her woodblock postcards of artists and writers that were popular in bookstores in New York City in the 1980s. I got in touch with Rachael though the contact information on the back one of the cards.

Postcard of James Joyce © by Rachael Romero
At the time that Rachael did the woodblock print for the cover of my collection of poetry, she was making her living partly by sketching portraits of tourists on 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village in New York City, usually on warm summer nights. When I wanted to discuss the project with her, I stood next to Rachael on the sidewalk as she created quick and insightful pastels of passerby who would stop to have their likenesses done.

Portraits © by Rachael Romero
This brings up another point about collaborations—you inevitably have to go outside your comfort zone in working with another artist. You might find yourself discussing your project standing on a corner under a streetlamp at ten o'clock at night. 

I once remarked to Rachael Romero that her work greatly resembled some of the political posters that I liked from the 1960s and 70s, produced by a group that signed itself the San Francisco Poster Brigade. “I was the San Francisco Poster Brigade,” she confided, not without a touch of pride.

Poster © by Rachael Romero as the San Franciso Poster Brigade
The style of Rachael’s that evokes the period of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the 1930s—I love it!

Another artist I admired enormously whose work is on the cover of one of my books of poetry is Mona Caron. Mona is an amazing and accomplished mural painter whose artwork graces many buildings internationally, including the bikeway mural on the Safeway supermarket at the busy intersection of Market Street and Duboce Street in San Francisco.

Duboce Bikeway Mural © Mona Caron
I met Mona Caron at the dedication ceremony for one of her murals. Whenever I wanted to discuss our collaborative project, I had to find her at the site of the mural she was painting at the time and shout up to her while she was high on a scaffold above the street. 

Mona Caron painting
Mona did a fabulous cover for my book of love poems, The Number Before Infinity. We had multiple discussions about the artwork. Mona was concerned that in portraying a sensual woman, she might be objectifying the person depicted in the image. I think she found a way to evoke the eroticism of the love poems in the book while still depicting the female figure as powerful.


Interestingly, Mona elected to handwrite the type on the cover in black letters, in order to have it match the wind-swept hair of the woman in the illustration.


I’ve found these collaborations with visual artists so fascinating. I’ve gotten to work with painters and graphic artists whose work I was a huge fan of, and felt a deep affinity for. To see their work displayed in tandem with my own is humbling and gratifying. Their artwork and interpretations of the poems add greatly to the reader’s experience.

Writers and Collaboration, Part 2, Part 3

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer