Friday, June 5, 2015

A Plot or the Unfolding of the Characters’ Fates: Two Ways of Writing a Story

Several types of literary works have a narrative structure involving a fictional story: novels, plays, short stories, and screenplays, to name the most obvious. I’ve noticed that these narratives tend to fall into two strikingly different categories, which I’ll call a plot and the unfolding of the characters’ fates.

Maggie Shipstead, author of Astonish Me
A plot has the quality of an actual plot, as in a scheme to accomplish something, not always something honest. I’m thinking of a plot to commit a crime, for instance. In a plot, there is a deliberate plan to accomplish a certain aim, with multiple steps. The element of suspense is crucial—will the intrigue work out as calculated or not? The goal is known, at least to the conspirators, but the outcome is in doubt. A plot in fiction is also vaguely dishonest—it's an attempt to deceive the reader, or at least to create an ending the reader can't completely guess.

The types of fiction that most obviously have a plot of this sort are mystery novels and films that involve suspense. Will the bad guy triumph, or will the good guys win out? Will the events that the audience or readers have been clued to expect take place as anticipated, or will a different result transpire? The author carefully plants clues in the mind of the readers/audience so they eagerly anticipate certain possible outcomes. The motto of this sort of story might be Janet Burroway’s dictum in her book Writing Fiction that, “only trouble is interesting,” since getting into and out of trouble is the engine of the plot.

On the other hand, there is the type of story where there isn’t a strong element of suspense. Then how does the reader/audience get interested and stay engaged? From the involvement with the characters, for one thing. It’s not so much that you’re waiting to see if things turn out the way you expect. You just want to spend time with those characters and watch them develop and realize their fates. And you also want to spend time with the author, to hear that voice describe certain moments in the story. The little moments themselves flavor the narrative.

To clarify, here are some examples of both types of stories.

In Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations the author prompts the reader to anticipate certain outcomes, or to guess certain outcomes. Will the escaped convict Abel Magwitch return to seek vengeance on Pip, the main character? Will Pip escape his sister’s tyrannical rule? Who is Pip’s benefactor and when will Pip find that out? Will making his fortune ruin Pip’s likeable character? Who will Pip marry—Estella, Biddy, or no one? Will Compeyson succeed in getting his revenge on Magwitch? There are so many ways in which Dickens successful whets the appetite of the reader to know what is going to happen next. To a great extent, that is what keeps the reader turning the pages of Great Expectations. Dickens is a classic example of plot-driven fiction.

On the other hand, think of a book like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Certainly, Mrs. Dalloway is no less great a novel than Great Expectations. For my taste, much greater. But there is very little plot to Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa Dalloway is giving a party in London on a particular day in June 1923. Try reading a summary of the plot of this novel, such as this one, for instance. Not much happens. A character commits suicide, but it’s someone who is peripheral to the main action of the story, and the title character doesn’t really know the character who takes his life.

What we do want to know in Mrs. Dalloway is how the fates of the characters unfold. Will Peter Walsh find happiness in his love life, or will he be forever discontent and restless? Will Clarissa settle back into her married life? But these are not urgent, life-or-death questions. They are just puzzles that Clarissa Dalloway, and through her, the reader, muses on. It’s that extraordinary musing that makes the novel so engaging: “She [Mrs. Dalloway] sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.

What makes Mrs. Dalloway an engaging book is quite different from what makes a Dickens novel a good read. A Virginia Woolf novel is propelled by the reader’s interest in realistic characters, and the small moments that contain larger truths. Is that enough to sustain a reader through hundreds of pages? If the author is really good, yes. Look at Marcel Proust, who sustains this for a thousand pages.

I just listened to the audiobook of Maggie Shipstead’s terrific novel about ballet, Astonish Me. There is very little suspense in that book, though it does end up having a fairly intricate story. But there is much to think about and savor along the way. Maggie Shipstead uses metaphor in a way that most poets would envy, and she understands her characters' hearts.

Neither method of engaging a reader/audience in a story is easy to do well. To make a plot grab you right from the start and hold onto your anticipation takes a gifted and skilled literary writer. To continually deliver twists that are surprising but not so unpredictable they seem unlikely or impossible to guess, is even harder.

It’s equally difficult to create characters who are lifelike enough to make the reader want to know more about their fates, and how those fates resemble and throw light on our own destiny or the fate of those we know, and to enliven each turn of phrase so that it lifts the reader forward.


These two methods of storytelling are actually related. A good suspense novel lacks color if we are not engaged with the characters and how their fates unfold. A strong novel of character and style becomes a bore if there is no suspense, no unresolved question that we want to know the answer to. But it’s interesting to see where a story falls on the continuum where one side is suspense, and the other is the pleasure of the small moments in the prose.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Marcel Proust on Love

Sometimes, in reading Marcel Proust’s great novel, it seems as if he is clueless on the subject of love. There are passages in In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past (the title changes depending on the translation), where the narrator seems oblivious to the realities of his own heart.

Portrait of Marcel Proust by Jacques-Émile Blanche in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris
For instance, in the second volume of the novel, Within a Budding Grove, the narrator gets the brush-off from his big crush, Gilberte: “On several occasions I sensed that Gilberte was anxious to put off my visits.” Duh! It took him this long to get the hint?

What about the fact that the narrator’s excitement in seeing Gilberte is ten times hers whenever they meet? And what about the reality that no one could possibly feel comfortable with the narrator’s overbearing love? He wanted to “smother” Gilberte with flowers every single day, until he found out by chance she had a boyfriend, when he glimpsed them walking together on the Champs-Elysées. How could he not have guessed?

In any case, it takes the narrator another 65 pages, closely spaced, finally to conclude, “I had arrived at a state of almost complete indifference to Gilberte.” Even then, incredibly, he’s still shlepping the torch for her—he is so pained by his beloved’s rejection that he can’t bear to set eyes on her.

Here is perhaps Proust’s most famous pronouncements on love, from this same section of the novel: “No doubt very few people understand the purely subjective nature of the phenomenon that we call love, or how it creates, so to speak, a supplementary person, distinct from the person whom the world knows by the same name, a person most of whose constituent elements are derived from ourselves."


But is love purely a subjective phenomenon? Is the beloved really only a phantom third person to the lover? Maybe some of the time, but then what is all this talk about, “I just wanna get next to you,” to quote the old soul tune, so often repeated in current rap songs. Not to mention the five billion condoms sold each year worldwide. I’m not convinced that the subjective nature of love is Proust’s most “penetrating” insight.

What I do love about Proust’s understanding of love are those passages where he has X-ray vision into the truth of human emotions. In the midst of the narrator’s angst about Gilberte, for instance, there are sentences that are so honest and full of close observation of the heart and its trickery, that no one else could untangle those feelings:

“We are, when in love, in an abnormal state, capable of giving at once to the most apparently simple accident, an accident which may at any moment occur, a seriousness which in itself it would not entail. What makes us so happy is the presence in our hearts of an unstable element which we contrive perpetually to maintain and of which we cease almost to be aware so long as it is not displaced.”

What an incredible description of someone in love—that altered state, where the presence of the beloved in the lover’s mind and body electrifies even trivial moments! And isn’t it so true that the excitement of love is partly the way it kicks over our everyday experience and makes us tremble with life for that very reason? This passage is an example of where Proust’s insights into love really hit home for me. You have to dig for those nuggets in his prose, rather than taking his theory as his only dictum on the subject of love.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Monday, May 4, 2015

Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast

Until recently I’d never read Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his memoir of expatriate artists in Paris in the 1920s. It’s a time period that fascinates me, partly because there was such a hive of English-language literary talent in that beautiful city during that decade. Hemingway’s recollections include personal anecdotes about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Ford Madox Ford, and others.

Ernest Hemingway
Some of the writing in A Moveable Feast is stunning. Hemingway has the ability to describe an incident that yanks you right into the experience. His long, breathless sentences give you the sense that he can’t wait to tell you about what he has seen. There are wonderful passages where he describes skiing in Austria:

“I remember the smell of the pines and the sleeping on the mattresses of beech leaves in the woodcutters’ huts and the skiing through the forest following the tracks of hares and of foxes. In the high mountains above the tree line I remember following the track of a fox until I came in sight of him and watching him stand with his right forefoot raised and then go carefully to stop and then pounce, and the whiteness and the clutter of a ptarmigan bursting out of the snow and flying away and over the ridge.”

Pure poetry. I also love a passage about a boy who led a small herd of goats through the Latin Quarter each morning, making the rounds of the alleyways, playing his pipes to advertise his wares. The boy would milk a goat on demand for a customer, who brought a pail or pot to collect the milk.

There are many sections of this book, though, that make me wonder why a person would commit to a public manuscript such negative observations about his friends. Hemingway praises the writing of his buddy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he savages Fitzgerald personally. Why write down an incident where Fitzgerald told Hemingway in a bar that his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, thought his penis was too small? Hemingway recounts how he had Fitzgerald pull down his pants in the bathroom to verify that his anatomy was adequate, and then took him to the Louvre to compare his parts to the classical sculptures. Funny, maybe, but so belittling to his friend (in more ways than one!). Not to mention the tell-all accounts of the drinking binges of F. Scott and Zelda.

The only people Hemingway has much good to say about are his wife, Hadley, whom he admits to cheating on at the end of the book; his son, whom he calls by the cute nickname of Mr. Bumby; and Ezra Pound. Hemingway repeatedly describes Pound as a “saint” in A Moveable Feast. It may be true that Pound raised funds to support the writers he admired, such as T.S. Eliot, but it seems extremely odd to beatify Pound, who made virulently anti-Semitic radio broadcasts and told U.S. troops they were fighting on the wrong side in the battle against fascism in World War II. Since Hemingway compiled the manuscript of A Moveable Feast after the war ended, he couldn’t plead ignorance of Pound’s actions.


All of these oddities in A Moveable Feast are a strong reminder of the changes that have taken place since Hemingway’s time. The out-of-control machismo that Hemingway championed in almost all his writing rings very false now. It makes Hemingway look like a kind of schoolyard bully wannabe. Not only that, the machismo dates much of Hemingway’s work. All that makes me wonder what Ernest Hemingway could have been if he had used his enormous talent with more generosity.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Why It's So Difficult to Write about Dreams

Many great works of literature have been inspired by dreams, or dream-like visions. Two of my favorites are Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan: or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment” and Gabriela Mistral’s “The Flower of Air,” (“La Flor de aire”) just to name a couple. There are great poems and works of prose that recount dreams, but in general, for me, most pieces of creative writing based closely on actual dreams fail to recreate the magic that the vision had for the writer. Why?
Self-portrait collage by André Breton
I’ll give you an example. A couple of nights ago I went to sleep with the thought on my mind that I wanted to write something about dreams. I had a long and often interrupted dream that I kept returning to, a dream that concerned writing. There was a phrase that I and the other characters in the dream kept repeating: “Kicking the wall so hard, the paint falls.” I remember someone, maybe me, actually kicking a door in the dream, and chips of red paint breaking off of it. This phrase and action were supposed to summarize in a nutshell all the great teachings of an important literary figure, someone who was my mentor in the dream.

Well, I don’t think you’ll be surprised that when I woke up, that phrase turned out not to be as profound or as earth shattering as it seemed in my dream. In fact, it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense. It has something to do with anger—the kicking—and anger as a force for change, or at least for damaging the status quo.

The difficulty in conveying the depth and urgency of a dream to a reader is that the dream seems to supply its own depth and saturated color. When the dreamer recounts the action and tries to depict that aura for a reader, it rarely has quite the same profundity or significance. It’s like having a conversation where one person has the light behind him, and sees the other person in all dimensions and in full color, while the other person is looking into the light, and sees only a vague outline of the person she is talking to. The dreamer sees the dream clearly, with all its perspective and vibrancy, while the reader only sees a silhouette and is irritated at having to try to make out all the obscure details.

There are times when dreams can be the basis of good literature, but this sometimes works best when the writer is aware that dreams are notoriously unreliable in their claims of depth. I’m thinking, for instance, of the surrealist André Breton’s prose poems entitled “Five Dreams” from his book Earthlight, which I co-translated with Bill Zavatsky. Even though Breton was one of the first writers to offer a blow-by-blow description of his dreams as literature, he seemed to know intuitively that dreams were by nature best recounted with a grain of salt. Here’s an excerpt from the fourth of his “Five Dreams”:

A part of my morning had been spent conjugating a new tense of the verb to be—because a new tense of the verb to be had just been invented. In the course of the afternoon I had written an article that, as far as I can remember, I found shallow but fairly brilliant. A little later I went back to work on a novel I was writing. This last enterprise had led me to do some research in my library. This soon led to the discovery of a work in octavo, composed of several volumes, that I didn’t know I owned. I opened one of them at random. The book claimed to be a philosophical treatise, but in one section, instead of Logic or Ethics, the heading read: Enigmatic. The text completely escapes me, I have only the memory of illustrations invariably rep­resenting an eccle­siastical or mythological character in the middle of an immense waxed room that looked like the Apollo Gallery [in the Versailles Palace].”

Breton is recounting a dream that almost has the quality of a revelation: he discovers a new tense of the verb to be and a mysterious lost treatise on philosophy. But he still is not willing to make any claim of profundity for his revelations—he finds his own article “shallow but fairly brilliant.” And the new volume of philosophy is called, fittingly, Enigmatic, and offers not universal pronouncements but only strange illustrations. The truths we come upon in dreams may be lightning bolts, Breton seems to be saying, but appreciate the irony and humor in the reality that the more they claim to be extremely profound, the more they give us mostly puzzles.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Saturday, April 11, 2015

AWP Picks for Saturday, April 11, 2015

Here are the events at the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs that look interesting to me for Saturday, April 11, 2015:

9:00 am to 10:15 am

Room 200 D&E, Level 2
S113. Yes, Writing Is a Job: People Who Get Paid to Write. (Joy Lanzendorfer,  Marcia Simmons,  Nora Maynard,  Ken Weaver) Believe it or not, it’s possible to make a living writing. Four working writers from diverse backgrounds will talk about how they make ends meet through article writing, blogging, nonfiction books, and other projects. Panelists will discuss how we get work, the financial realities of the publishing world, and our struggle to balance writing for money with creative endeavors that are closer to our hearts (but harder on our pocketbooks). Another panel on the important topic of the practical side of making ends meet as a writer.

Room 211 A&B, Level 2
S120. Straight Talk: What the MFA Promises & What It Delivers. (Lee Martin, Sonja Livingston,  Carter Sickels,  Claire Vaye Watkins,  Karen Salyer McElmurray) A 2013 Poets & Writers index says that full-time teaching positions at the university level are available, on average, for well less than one percent of creative writing program graduates. This roundtable will discuss expectations and realities of why we enter creative programs in the first place and our futures afterwards. How can programs be more forthcoming about these realities and what actions can faculty take? What does risk really mean when you choose the path of the MFA? Good subject. I know a lot of MFA students and alums are concerned about whether that degree is a good investment of time and money.

Room M100 B&C, Mezzanine Level
S123. Latina/o Poets as Publishers: A CantoMundo Roundtable. (Deborah Paredez,  Carmen Gimenez Smith,  Juan Morales,  Rosebud Ben-Oni,  Casandra Lopez) How are Latina/o poets occupying and transforming the roles of publishers and editors today? This panel convenes CantoMundo founders and fellows to discuss their work as publishers of small presses, editors of literary magazines and blogs, and founders of new media platforms. Our roundtable conversation explores the particular challenges, visions, and contributions of Latina/o publishers and editors. Looks interesting.

10:30 am to 11:45 am

Room 211 A&B, Level 2
S151. Building Communities: How to Develop Partnerships and Collaborations. (Sarah Gambito, Francisco Aragón, Cornelius Eady,  Joan Kane,  Diem Jones) This panel gathers representatives of five organizations serving writers of color: Cave Canem, Institute of American Indian Arts, Kundiman, Letras Latinas, and Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. We will discuss best practices and possibilities for collaboration—across organizations; with presses, residencies, and university affiliations; and beyond. Panelists will discuss how partnerships promote cross-cultural solidarity and foster organizational sustainability, growth, and inspiration. Excellent panel and worthwhile topic.

Room M100 J, Mezzanine Level
S158. Teaching Translated Texts in the Writing Program. (Nadia Kalman,  Geoffrey Brock,  Elizabeth Harris,  Douglas Unger,  Russell Valentino) Creative writing programs incorporate the reading and study of literature, but often focus on English-language writers. Four writing professors, all of whom translate, talk about teaching international literature in their programs. Panelists discuss the use of various works and writers and their respective literary traditions; consider pedagogical approaches to language, style, narrative conventions, and subjects; and reveal how their own work as writer/translators informs their teaching. Important subject for exposing students to more world literature.

12:00 pm to 1:15 pm

Room 200 B&C, Level 2
S175. From the Thickets of Translation: How and Why We Should Teach Contemporary World Literature in the Creative Writing Classroom. (Jia Oak Baker,  Ravi Shankar,  Forrest Gander,  Wayne Miller,  Carolyne Wright) In the 21st century, any conversation about literature must expand beyond the Western tradition, reflecting the globalization intensifying around us. But the MFA classroom is often limited to the same few canonical examples of international writers. Join editors from highly acclaimed anthologies of contemporary world literature as they discuss pedagogical strategies and the necessity for enlarging the perspective used in classrooms today by infusing new voices into the conversation. Similar and important topic on world lit in the MFA.

Room L100 D&E, Lower Level
S193. Writing into the World: Memoir, History, and Private Life. (Honor Moore,  Carolyn Forche,  Catina Bacote,  Alysia Abbott,  Garth Greenwell) Memory drives memoir, but it can take writing to realize that while we thought we were just living, history was unfolding. Contemporary memoir has been ridiculed as MEmoir, but where would history be without the testimony of individuals, whose memories of “how it was” bring into focus, add nuance, even contradict received accounts? Even what seems private is subject to the dynamics of political, economic, and cultural change. How do we bring the larger world into our autobiographical writing while retaining the intimacy of the personal voice and affirming the uniqueness of each life? Strong panel in the memoir area.

1:30 pm to 2:45 pm

Auditorium Room 1, Level 1
S197. Disappearance and Forgetting: Geeshie Wiley and Last Kind Words Blues, A Lecture by Greil Marcus, Sponsored by the Poetry Foundation. (Robert Polito, Greil Marcus) In 1930 a blues singer and guitarist named Geeshie Wiley recorded a song that opened up the deepest crevices of the American imagination. Then she fell off the map. While recent research has, for the first time, tracked the outlines of her life, she remains in the mist—and in this talk, the song writes the singer's adventures in the long years after she once spoke in public to describe life as she knew it. A conversation with Poetry Foundation president Robert Polito follows. Greil Marcus is a fascinating speaker and thinker.

3:00 pm to 4:15 pm

Auditorium Room 1, Level 1
S229. Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat: A Tribute to Robert Bly, Sponsored by Blue Flower Arts . (Tom Verner,  Tony Hoagland,  Marie Howe,  Jill Bialosky) A tribute to honor and celebrate the life and literary work of groundbreaking poet, writer, translator, storyteller, and cultural critic Robert Bly. Bly has changed the American literary landscape with pioneering translations of Neruda, Transtromer, Machado, Hafez, and Rilke. His own poetry permeates the space between the conscious and unconscious, and finds rich meaning in mythology. An icon of American letters, Bly's many awards include the Frost Medal. He has lived in Minnesota for 80+ years. Great group of readers to honor a seminal poet/translator.

Room 101 F&G, Level 1
S235. Revisiting Highway 61. (Mark Conway, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Dessa, James Allen Hall ) Fifty-five years after Minnesota’s native son Bob Dylan came down from the Iron Range on Highway 61, four poets will respond to his pervasive influence. They will read their own work and explore how it reflects and deflects powerful elements in Dylan including Blake, the blues, the Bible and the North Country. How can you have AWP in Minnesota and not talk about the immortal Bob D.?

Room 205 A&B, Level 2
S242. Speculating Darkly: A Poetry Reading . (Bianca Spriggs,  Keith Wilson,  Kenyatta Rogers, Ladan Osman,  Airea Matthews) Taking its title and spirit from a series of essays written by poet Roger Reeves (published on the Poetry Foundation's "Harriet the Blog"), and subsequent reading series curated by poet and visual artist Krista Franklin, "Speculating Darkly, or The Folk Surreal Future," is a poetry reading that features some of the Midwest's emerging African Diaspora writers who focus on the Black Fantastic, the Grotesque, the Afro-Surreal, the Gothic, the speculative, and science fiction. Looks like a strong reading. Make sure you hear Ladan Osman.

4:30 pm to 5:45 pm

Room 211 A&B, Level 2
S277. Persimmon Tree Poets Read. (Wendy Barker, Chana Bloch, Tori Derricotte,  Sandra M. Gilbert, Fleda Brown) A reading by poets featured in past issues of Persimmon Tree: An Online Journal of the Arts for Women Over Sixty, a magazine that has showcased many of the most significant women poets of our era. The founding poetry editor and current poetry editor will also briefly review the history and direction of this highly successful journal that now reaches 12,000 unique readers each month from across the globe. Good group. I’ve heard Alicia Ostriker might read Chana Bloch’s poems, since Chana is recovering from an illness.

Room M100 H&I, Mezzanine Level

S283. Everything I Know about Poetry I Learned from Li Po and Tu Fu: The Influence of Classical Chinese Poetry . (John Bradley, Sam Hamill,  George Kalamaras,  Ken Letko) Once, Li Po was stepping over a puddle, and a wood splinter fell from his shoe sole into the water, making ripples that will be felt at this AWP Conference. These ripples, in fact, have formed Modernist poetry. Join the conversation so you can practice splitting firewood by moonlight. Good topic and panel.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Thursday, April 9, 2015

AWP Picks for Friday, April 10, 2015

Here are the events on the program of the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) in Minneapolis in the U.S. that sound interesting to me.

Offsite events listed at the end.


Bookfair: Check out Broadsided Press, Booth 1822, where you can use an old school ViewMaster to click through writings and images while listening to related sounds with earphones. The choices include a Road Trip, Hit the Beach, Into the Wild, etc. The writers whose work is featured include Jane Hirshfield, Dorianne Laux, Gabrielle Calvacoressi, Zachary Savich, and many, many more. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

9:00 am to 10:15 am

Auditorium Room 3, Level 1
F106. Preparing Students of Color for the MFA: Advice, Reflections, and Methodologies. (Tonya Hegamin,  Joanna Sit,  Marcelo Hernandez Castillo,  Patrick Rosal,  Leah Vernon) Writers of various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds discuss their experience in MFA programs as students and teachers of creative writing. The panel will share their experiences, discuss coping mechanisms and insights they learned about themselves as writers and finally how those experiences influence their teaching pedagogy. Important topic on diversity in MFA programs.

Room 205 C&D, Level 2
F116. Writing is Rewriting: Teaching Revision in the Creative Writing Workshop. (Charlotte Gullick,  Doug Dorst,  Joe Hoppe,  Mary Helen Specht,   Jen McClanaghan) Creative writing students love to write; so why, then, is it often like pulling teeth to get them to revise? Drawing on their experiences teaching graduate, undergraduate, and nontraditional students, the writer-professors on this panel will discuss why students are resistant to revision and offer classroom-tested strategies and assignments that can help students revise everything from structure to language, fiction to poetry. This is a topic many students want to know more about.

Room M100 B&C, Mezzanine Level
F122. Literature as Visual Art: A Conversation on Collaboration. (Kate Shuknecht,  Deborah Keenan,  Regula Russelle,  Jean Larson,  Charles Jones) Book arts, art books, broadsides, collage, sculpture. These are but some of the ways literature and visual art collide. With writers, publishers, and artists utilizing a variety of texts and images, this panel explores a world of collaborative possibilities. From fine press limited editions to small press multiples, from traditional letterpress to evolving 3-D forms, from paper and ink to found media, panelists will discuss not just the gorgeous array of made objects, but the community around them. I have a particular interest in collaborating with artists, so I personally find this interesting.

10:30 am to 11:45 am

Auditorium Room 1, Level 1
F133. Four Weddings and an Inauguration: The Occasional Poem. (Liz Ahl,  Richard Blanco,  CM Burroughs,  Rita Dove,  Ann Hudson) Your sister asks you to write a poem for her wedding. Your president asks you to write a poem for his inauguration. How might your work in response to requests of such seemingly different weight or scope be somewhat similar with respect to audience, performance, and aesthetic? Why have certain poems endured beyond the occasions for which they were written? This panel, featuring an editor, an inaugural poet, and a former poet laureate, examines the occasional poem from a variety of perspectives. Stellar lineup with Rita Dove and Richard Blanco.

Room 101 F&G, Level 1
F140. Principled Protest in Academia: The National Significance of the University of Houston Sit-in. (Ashley Wurzbacher,  Kay Cosgrove,  Jameelah Lang,  Kevin Prufer,  Alexander Parsons) In 2013 graduate students and faculty in the University of Houston creative writing program staged a sit-in and other collective actions to protest teaching stipends that had not been increased in at least twenty years. Their efforts received national attention and resulted in a raise of over fifty-five percent. This panel will provide student, faculty, and administrative perspectives on the sit-in and will discuss its national implications at a time when funding for the arts is at an all-time low. Who knew? This is a positive development, worth spreading.

Room 208 A&B, Level 2
F149. Opting out of the Pyramid Scheme: In Praise of Teaching High School. (Scott Gould,  Kim Henderson,  Margaret Funkhouser,  Monika Cassel,  David Griffith) In a pyramid scheme-like job market where hundreds of newly-minted MFAs vie for poorly paying adjunct positions and no-pay internships at nonprofits, there is astonishingly very little discussion around teaching high school. A panel of writer-educators from the top arts high schools in the country discuss the huge upside to teaching writing outside of the Academy, from the impact on the future of literary culture, to the ways that early exposure creates a healthy, lasting relationship to writing. Teaching younger students is such a rewarding experience—worth exploring for many.

12:00 pm to 1:15 pm

Auditorium Room 1, Level 1
F165. From Page to Stage: How to Engage with an Audience. (Stacie Williams, Amber Tamblyn,  Adam Wilson, Justin Taylor,  Jessica Anya Blau) Four authors discuss what they’ve learned from their time on the road. Sharing experiences from their most memorable events, whether reading to a crowd of three or three hundred, participating in a nudist colony’s book club discussion, poetry readings, or a dramatic performance, these authors will reinforce the importance of having an engaging and personal experience regardless of audience size, venue, or awareness. For those who like performing poetry.

Room M100 H&I, Mezzanine Level
F188. Cream City Review Celebrates Returning the Gift Native American Writers. (Kimberly Blaeser,  Janet McAdams,  Margaret Noodin,  Laura Tohe, b: william bearhart) In 1992, 500 years after Columbus, more than 300 Native American writers gathered at the first Returning the Gift Festival, bringing together more Native writers than at any other point in history. Cream City Review celebrated the legacy of this now annual gathering with a special issue entitled “Returning the Gift: Indigenous Futures.” Please join us for our Gathering of Words with a poetry and fiction reading from emerging and established Native American writers published in this issue. One of the few panels focusing on Native American writers at AWP.

1:30 pm to 2:45 pm

Auditorium Room 3, Level 1
F198. I Know This is You: What Happens When Student Writing Reveals Too Much . (Luke Rolfes, Christie Hodgen, Bronson Lemer, Diana Joseph,  Richard Sonnenmoser) Teachers often receive nonfiction thinly disguised as stories or poems. Sometimes the skeleton closet swings open, and words and paragraphs spill out—a cathartic overflowing, a painful regret, an admission of guilt, a secret that has never seen the light of day. How do instructors handle these sudden outbursts of truth without jeopardizing the dignity of the writer or the workshop’s integrity? What obligation do teachers have when the workshop ends and the revelation still sits on the table? Good topic for creative writing teachers. Always an interesting subject, how to balance confession and literature.

Room 101 D&E, Level 1
F203. Readings from Every Father’s Daughter, a New Anthology of Personal Essays by Women about Their Fathers . (Phillip Lopate, Joyce Maynard, Ann Hood, Jayne Anne Phillips,  Jill McCorkle) Some of this century’s finest women writers from all over the country will read from Every Father’s Daughter, a new anthology of personal essays by diverse women about their fathers. The anthology is being published in April 2015 on the occasion of McPherson & Company's 41st anniversary. One of the most stellar event lineups at AWP.

3:00 pm to 4:15 pm

Ballroom A, Level 1
F230. Three Decades, Four Poets: Cave Canem Presents Whiting Award Winners. (Alison Meyers,  Thylias Moss,  John Keene,  Tyehimba Jess,  Atsuro Riley) Poets Tyehimba Jess, John Keene, Thylias Moss, and Atsuro Riley read selections from their original work, including poems that earned them recognition as Whiting Award winners. Their presentation represents three decades of excellence and the diverse aesthetics that resonate with Cave Canem Foundation’s mission and values. Any reading with Tyehimba Jess and Thylias Moss is going to be great.

Room 101 D&E, Level 1
F237. Embracing the Unlikeable: How To Write and Teach Unsympathetic Characters. (Christopher Castellani,  Maud Casey,  Alix Ohlin,  Stacey D'Erasmo) Fiction rises or falls on the believability of its characters. Recently, media attention has been paid to whether those characters have to be "likeable," and what role, if any, the "unlikeable" sort should play in stories and novels. In this panel, four authors explore what this demand for likeability really means for writers of literary fiction, examine the craft of creating complex but compelling characters, and explore how to teach students confused by misleading publishing trends. This is a topic I would like to know more about.

Room 200 H&I, Level 2
F244. How to Survive as an Independent Literary Organization in an Age of University Monopolies. (Richard Newman, Tanner Curl,  Maribeth Batcha,  Gianna Jacobson) How does one start up or sustain a literary organization without university funding? Why are independent literary organizations vital to the literary landscape? december, One Story, River Styx, and the Loft Literary Center will discuss founding an organization, funding projects, building community relationships, and sustaining a nonprofit’s viability. Good topic in this day and age.

Room M100 B&C, Mezzanine Level
F252. Mentor/Mentee: Paying It Forward. (Julie Schumacher,  Edward McPherson,  Yuko Taniguchi,  Patricia Hampl,  Stephanie Vaughn) The teaching of writing involves close attention to the writer—to  his/her process, foibles, and development—as well as the work. What sort of mentoring should a student writer expect, and an adviser provide? Is mentoring purely professional/artistic, or is there a personal component? Faculty mentors debate these questions with former students who went on to become mentors themselves. How is mentoring paid forward? What do former mentees hope to bring to the next generation? An important subject for both students and professors.

4:30 pm to 5:45 pm

Room 101 D&E, Level 1
F269. Writing the Broken Body: A Reading. (Peggy Shumaker, Judith Barrington, Anne Caston,  Cynthia Hogue, Eva Saulitis) Most cultures glorify the perfect physique, the lithe and lively body. Transforming disability, disease, trauma, and pain into art takes tremendous focus and skill. Come hear award-winning writers who demonstrate how the honest treatment of physical life is vital to a literature that includes all, whether or not they are fit and well. Each writer will read from relevant work and comment on the process of finding a form and voice for this difficult material. Great topic, great group.

Room 101 F&G, Level 1
F270. Translating Brazil. (Tiffany Higgins, Ellen Dore Watson, Hilary Kaplan, Alexis Levitin) Opening with a short reading, this panel will take up questions of how to transmit aesthetics and culture in poetry from an enormous nation with a complex history of race and class. What challenges does the translator of contemporary Brazilian writing face? The panelists will address the "Braziilianness" of the works they translate, and the issues that arise in bringing it to English. Eu amo a Brazil—I love Brazil, and these are some of the leading translators of contemporary Brazilian writers.

Room 101 H&I, Level 1
F271. This Poem Has Multiple Issues: Reimagining Political Poetry . (Kathryn Levy,  Samiya Bashir,  Sarah Browning,  Mark Doty,  Dan Vera) Wikipedia’s entry for Political Poetry begins, "This article has multiple issues." Precisely. Such lack of consensus could stem from the contentiousness of politics itself, but it might also be a product of conceptual neglect: when we think of a conventional political poem, what example springs to mind? And how current is it? This panel considers a diversity of approaches to the political poem—in its subject, poetics, or call to action—to update our understanding of its multiple issues. It’s always interesting to hear about new ways to do political poetry. And with Mark Doty.

Room L100 B&C, Lower Level
F277A. Mixing and Matching Languages for Narrative Riches. (Denise Low, DaMaris Hill,  Xanath Caraza,  Ruben Quesada) All writers encounter diverse, coded vocabularies. Here, panelists discuss use of Nahuatl, Spanish, Cherokee, and African American terms in English-language writings. What techniques weave translation into a single text? What stories require languages other than standard English? Published writers of African American, Costa Rican-Los Angelino, Mexican Indigenous, and Midwest mixed-blood Indigenous heritage share ideas. Thought-provoking topic, worth exploring.

Room 208 A&B, Level 2
F279. Making Diversity Happen: Editors Can Change the Literary Landscape. (Lee Hope, Martha Nichols, Danielle Georges,  J.W. Wang,  Margaret Elysia Garcia) Many literary editors now acknowledge the lack of diversity in the writers they publish. Yet the debate often turns into female and minority authors blaming the editing “guys”—and editors, male and female, wringing their hands but offering few solutions. This panel will focus on what editors and writers need to do to make diversity happen, be it networking outside their comfort zones, hiring editors of color, or running online social media campaigns to promote a truly diverse literary world. Important subject with a good panel.

Room 211 C&D, Level 2
F282. Ethno-Representations of War & Violence. (Nomi Stone, Tarfia Faizullah,  Jehanne Dubrow, Solmaz Sharif) Drawing on Carolyn Forché’s notion of a third space of the social, which bridges the personal and political, we interrogate and enlarge methodologies, languages, and source-worlds in writing poetry about war/violence. Panelists will engage poems drawn from interviews of Bangladeshi victims of wartime rape; of Iraq War refugees who reenact war in US pre-deployment simulations; and of Jews in Honduras after the Holocaust, as well as poems that re-imagine the Department of Defense’s security dictionary. Intriguing subject. Looks worthwhile.

OFFSITE EVENT

7:00 pm to 8:30 pm

Bust Magazine and the Loft Present Roxane Gay and Others
The Loft Literary Center, 1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55415
Cost: Suggested Admission $5, no one turned away
URL: 
https://loft.secure.force.com/portal/EventDetails?event.id=a1EG0000007WjTJMA0
BUST Magazine and The Loft Literary Center present a reading with Patricia Smith, xTx, Roxane Gay, Amber Tamblyn, Franny Choi and host Margaret Cho. Free and open to the public. First-come, first-served seating. Overflow rooms with live feeds will be available. This is one of the most high-profile events at the conference. Patricia Smith is a stand-out, and hosted by Margaret Cho! 

On Friday, April 10, 2015, from noon to 1 pm, Zack Rogow will be signing copies of Talking with the Radio: poems inspired by jazz and popular music at the Kattywompus Press table, Booth 307.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka