Aug 25

Veblen on Vacation

Coiner of the phrase “conspicuous consumption” and author of Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), economist Thorstein Veblen built his own summer house and study cabin on Washington Island in Lake Michigan, at the tip of Wisconsin’s peninsula (its “thumb”) where he stayed every sumveblen study cabin 2011mer from 1896 to 1926. In 2009 somebody moved the cabin to its current spot on Little Lakeveblen with plans to restore it. On vacation I found it by chance. It’s not much to see, now or back then. It's built in Norwegian-immigrant style, boards and logs arranged vertically so as to channel wetness to the ground. He also made all his own furniture and a boat. He wrote nine books, all still in print. The photo of Veblen with his cabin was taken about 1915. 

The man was eccentric; he has been called the Frank Lloyd Wright of economics. An American with his name of course had to be a Norwegian from Wisconsin, which explains his progressivism and contempt for non-productive activity. Until I visited the cabin, all that had never crossed my mind.

We have Veblen to thank for his contributions to the theories of consumerism and the business cycle, and in the Gilded Age he accurately foresaw a U.S. economy that would benefit mainly the very wealthy. He taught at Mizzou for seven years, hating it and calling Columbia “a woodpecker hole of a town.” For a year he was one of the editors of The Dial, which became a litmag that first published the likes of Marianne Moore.

When Veblen first came to Washington Island he stayed in a boarding house and looked for people who could teach him to speak Icelandic so he could translate an old epic poem. In 1957, for her master’s thesis, a graduate student collected islanders' memories and stories about the great man, and incidentally was given the books and papers left in the study. Veblen wore really old clothes, people said. But he was generous with money and liked anybody who could teach him anything.

May 06

Stealing Prose

Author-friend's nonfiction prose article was published by a good litmag about 15 years ago. Long before that, pre-Internet, the mag, without authors' permissions, had agreed to allow its contents to be republished in a lit-crit series sold to libraries. This series was later sold to a database, which allegedly "licensed" the article for use on a website -- one that caters to lazy or dishonest students, providing downloadable research papers, articles, bibliographies, and so on. The author was stunned to find the article there, priced at $6.99.

Author contacts this Plagiarism-R-Us website. Meets with arrogance and refusal to remove the work. Database which allegedly "licensed" the article ignores Author's phone call and letter. Author contacts website's apparent ISP, which says it isn't the site's ISP. Nevertheless, after months, article is finally removed.

Author learns that although the copyright reverted to the author after publication, unless it was then specifically registered with Library of Congress, the author's right to this individual article is essentially theoretical. And it's highly unlikely damages could be recovered, for example, in court.

Screenwriters have a union. Songwriters have a union. For freelance writers there’s a National Writer’s Union offering legal advice and grievance assistance to members ($120/year) -- but how many editors would cheerfully “Hire a Union Writer!”? The Author’s Guild offers members ($90/year) much the same support, plus health-insurance deals, but no self-published authors are allowed.

Now read this again and underline every snag, snafu, artificial difficulty, loophole, clusterf---, and cryin’ shame in this true story about our profession.
May 06

Stealing Poetry

True story from out East: Poet's chapbook is published by a good chapbook press. Has a terrific poem in it that a high-school girl types up as her own and submits to young-people's poetry contests, such as Scholastic's. She wins top prize in THREE contests and $5000. Prizes help her get into a high-prestige school and rev up to become a writer.

Then the little scamp is found out. Publisher can't sue because after publication the rights to the poems reverted to the author. Poet hasn't got a legal leg to stand on: poet did not register a Library of Congress copyright for the individual poem, and probably couldn't have afforded to, at $35 (electronic) or $45 (on paper) fee per poem, a serious artificial difficulty. From the thief they got a written confession (to show her college dean!) and a promise to pay the prize money back to the prize-givers, and that is all.

This is not even an Internet-theft story! It would have been easy and quick to catch such a thief on the Internet; just Google! Want to protect what you have on the Net? Stamp it with your choice of one of the licenses available free from

Stuff you printed, that isn't online -- what this story shows is THAT is now the thing to sweat about!

Granted that this story is a very unusual one, because the poem made money. And it is one of only three poetry-theft stories that I have personally heard about in the past 30 years.
Apr 15

Talking With: Alice Azure, Native American Author

Poet Alice Azure wroazure1te Along Came a Spider (Bowman Books), about her 35-year search to trace her Native American ancestry. She found her spiritual home in the Acadian-Métis culture of Nova Scotia, where Europeans and the Mi’kmaq (pronounced Mic-mac) tribe intermingled in the sixteenth century. While piecing the story together, Azure says she sensed she was “being sought out by Invisibles as much as I sought them.” During the rigors of writing and research, Azure met her spiritual guide, Grandmother Spider, who urged her to complete the work and to write honestly. The conversations with Spider are included in the book. It was all so interesting and so unheard, I let the interview below run to full length.

What drove you to claim a Native American identity when according to your genealogy and DNA test your known ancestry is European? Your genealogical searching was intensive and expensive. Why go to those lengths?

From the time I began a serious search for my Native ancestors (1974) up to the completion of Along Came a Spider (late 2010), I never had a DNA test. With regard to my genealogy, I only knew for sure was that my mother and her folks were from Norway. It was my father’s family from Nova Scotia, Canada that presented the genealogical challenges with regard to identifying Mi’kmaq ancestors.

Although my father, Joseph Alfred Hatfield, and his grandmother, Celestine Porthier Boudreau, always asserted their Mi’kmaq ancestry, it wasn’t until graduate school at the University of Iowa that I decided to learn more about my Native roots. One of my professors, of Mi’kmaq ancestry himself, challenged me to research my heritage. I took up his challenge—vigorously, I might add. When I began, in the early 1970s, the American Indian Movement was at its zenith. Many times there were questions about my tribal enrollment, the name of my reservation, the Native names of my family, my clan and why I was interested in working with tribal communities. All of these questions I regarded as reasonable, and I wanted to be able to answer them. So I began by focusing my search on family names.      

You belong to the Aroostook Band of Mi’kmaq, is that correct? What are the benefits of tribal membership?

I don’t belong to the Aroostook Band. Early on, I applied for membership in the Aroostook Band of Mi’kmaq in Presque Isle, Maine. I reasoned that since I would never live in Nova Scotia, it might be worth my efforts to petition for tribal membership in the state where my father had lived and worked most of his life. There were no benefits for me other than to be able to say, “This is my spiritual home.” In spite of some encouragement from a staff member from the Aroostook Band, the politics were not in my favor—living in Illinois as I did at the time. In addition, I needed proof of my father’s residency in that northern area of Maine. The years he worked as a lumberman, starting with his teen years, were before the advent of Social Security—so I was facing digging up payroll records, etc. It was too much for me to sustain, to be a family person, stay on top of my career and keep building my family tree.

I have found a “home of the heart” in the Association des Acadiens Métis-Sourquois (salt water people), based in Saulnierville, Digby County, Nova Scotia, which has granted me recognition of aboriginal status as a person of Acadian descent in Nova Scotia. The “Epilogue” chapter of my book, Along Came a Spider, explains the Canadian law with regard to who is aboriginal in that country.

I and many other people of Acadian descent recently have come to the understanding through study, research, and now DNA testing, that from 1604 up to 1755, a hybrid people and culture was born in Acadie (roughly, the Canadian northeast Maritimes) through the cooperative bartering for fur pelts, fish and lumber between French and Mi’kmaq people. This new culture—neither French nor Mi’kmaq—developed into what today is called Acadian.

Why have I never heard of the Mi'kmaq? Are they historically a small or isolated group? What are some of the things unique to their culture?

The Mi’kmaq are basically a Canadian tribe, so that may be one reason you didn’t know or hear much about them. Historically, they were a powerful group, estimated by Daniel N. Paul in his book, We Were Not the Savages, to be around 200,000 at the time of first European contact—1504. By 1838, disease, warfare and deliberate English policies of genocide and scalp bounties had reduced the people to a population of 1,425 (Paul, 187,188).

What I think is unique about Mi’kmaq culture is their wonderful array of creation stories. I most love the ones about magical Power—“[h]ow to acquire it, how to use it, how to lose it and the consequences attendant upon all of the above.” I just quoted from Ruth Holmes Whitehead’s masterful book, Stories from the Six Worlds: Micmac Legends (13). It is timeless!  

When did you understand that you had to write and publish this book?

I began to slip into a serious depression after my husband Alec died February 11, 1993. Also, I couldn’t find employment, and was fast running out of money. Realizing that I was losing my way, I asked for some guidance from my medicine women friends. They took me into the woods, so to speak, watched me, prayed over me and conducted some ceremonies. That’s when I saw Spider on my blanket. I knew I had to recount as much as I could, or I would not remember everything. So I recorded in my journal all the happenings of what I call that holy time—from Alec’s death to November of 1994 when I finally secured a job in the United Way at Green Bay, Wisconsin. At first, I had no intention of writing a book. Increasingly, I found my understanding of Grandmother Spider expanding to such an extent that I began to realize that I was being sought out by Invisibles as much as I sought them. So around 2004 I knew that this amazing, numinous experience in my life had a pattern, had meaning and significance. I wanted to share it. And I believe Spider goaded me on. Sometimes she would sit on the upper left corner of my computer screen—at a time I wasn’t advancing the story. I became very discouraged when I couldn’t find a publisher after about twenty queries. Late in 2009, I submitted an essay to an academic journal—Studies in American Indian Literatures. The editor for that particular issue, Siohban Senier, a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, asked to see some more of my writing and poems. The rest is history. What a coach she turned out to be—encouraging me to finish the manuscript and send it to Bowman Books. 

In the book you mention that many French-Acadians seemed insulted when you asked about Native ancestry. Recently, others have seemed eager to claim that ancestry. Lots of Americans want to do the same. You said you don't know the reason. What is your best guess?

In 1974, when my first husband and I traveled to Nova Scotia to begin my search for Native ancestors, I did “cold calling,” knocking on doors in Wedgeport where many of my father’s people had lived. Yes—it was obvious they were surprised, maybe even insulted when I inquired about Mi’kmaq ancestry in the Boudreau surname. That was in the summer of 1974. Father Clarence d’Entremont, the well-known Acadian genealogist, wrote me letters in 1978 saying that there was no Indian blood in the Boudreau line. Stephen A. White, another authoritative genealogist, in a 1977 letter outlining my father’s female line, also said there was no Mi’kmaq ancestry. They both were wrong. Through a rigorous process of application first to the Kespu’kwitk Métis Council l (which I resigned from, for lack of communication) then to the Association des Acadiens-Métis Sourquois, my genealogies have been certified as Métis—of aboriginal descent. So you deal with the denials, the subtle racism—the outright racism—and go on and do your thing.

I certainly think one has to factor in greed when considering the significant increase of Native American ancestry being claimed through the census. Some of it is said to be due to discrimination by the tribes themselves. It is well-known that tribal governments have the power to enroll—and dis-enroll. There’s a lot of discrimination at that end. The new-found casino wealth of a few successful tribes may be driving some of that greed. I think people with Native ancestors who have never interacted with tribal communities may also feel entitled to the meager benefits—the usual situation—of tribal enrollment. It’s a lot of work to go through that process. Some of my friends have been persistent and received their cards. For others—like a granddaughter of Alec, my late husband, enrollment has eluded her, again because of mean-spiritedness.

With regard to the burgeoning of Acadian-Métis people, I believe it is driven by a sense of history, a pride in having had ancestors who suffered, perished in or survived le grand dérangement (the savage Acadian Removal of 1755). More and more, the several DNA tests now available are confirming a great variety of haplotypes—which must give the French purists heartburn. In Nova Scotia, we even have our own “lost colony of Roanoke” story. Its name was the Fagundes Colony. A group in 1520 set out from the Azores to settle (not to just fish) near the Outer Banks—Cape Breton Island. What happened to them cannot be known at this point, but a whole lot of Acadians are testing for U6a haplotypes, a bloodline that shows up in France only among people deported from Nova Scotia—who had established themselves there over generations, then were kicked out. Suppose, goes the theory, that the Mi’kmaq killed the male settlers and took the women and children into their own camps? The women eventually settled into Mi’kmaq life. Mitochondrial DNA tests—which track only the female lines—daughter to mother to grandmother to great-grandmother and so on—would never pick up the paternal Indian lines.

Is Grandmother Spider a spirit guide, or is she a goddess, or--?

I think Grandmother Spider is a spirit guide that comes out of my Native ancestry. In the book, I talk somewhat of another spirit-guide, MW. In retrospect, I think he comes out of my western, or Christian, tradition. Vine Deloria, Jr. in his book, The World We Used to Live In, asserted that spirits from different cultures or traditions are quite compatible. Spider is real. I believe that. I don’t know how else to say this, than to encourage the reader to read my poem “Blessing” on page 169 of the book. Other cultures—in Africa and somewhere in the Caribbean, have a Grandmother Spider being. In my book, I use a creative nonfiction style to introduce and close each essay through a conversation with Spider—always under my arbor. I’ll never forget the very first time she spun her web on my arbor. The vines were not mature, the moon was shining so bright, and I saw her hanging there on the arbor on a shining web.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I include a good bibliography in the book for the reader who may want more information about the ideas or topics I discuss. A glossary is also included to help with some of the words, tribal names and phrases I use. I hope these two aids will add to the book’s appeal.

Apr 03

Writing an Author a Fan Letter

More than 30 years ago I received a pair of life-changing books that I read and annotated to pieces so I had to buy fresh copies, that I still read and re-read and use with pleasure, and finally a few weeks ago I emailed the author the fan letter. This was a cookbook author. (Cookbooks are the one kind of book I would never want as e-books only. I love love love them, and especially those by this author.)

I told the author how much the books have meant to me, what recipes I liked and how they helped sustain me and friends in good times and in lean times. I did not expect a reply, but she wrote that I made her day, and so on. If you have ever received an appreciative letter about your work, you know how it refreshes you. This was the thought finally drove me to take a minute and send my fellow writer, the cookbook author, my long-overdue verbal bouquet. I recommend this. It feels like a deposit in the Bank of Good Karma.

What I don't recommend is trying to establish a correspondence. A real writer is going to be too busy writing to be your penpal. (OMG, who remembers "penpals"??) I sent then-Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens my article about a TV show on which he had written another opinion. He wrote me back to say he appreciated my point of view. (I was amazed he had received, opened and read my letter at all.) I wrote him back but did not hear from him again. This wasn't rude. He's a writer.
Mar 03

What's Wrong with Flashbacks

Thinking about the all-too-common use of flashbacks in fiction, especially fiction in manuscript, I came up with exactly no reason why flashbacks should be used. At all. I tell my beginning students, "You're just starting out writing fiction. So no flashbacks or fancy stuff. Just be direct and tell the story chronologically, as it unfolds. Life is chronological. Events always move forward. There's no flashing back."

They come to fiction writing imprinted with "flashback" although "flashback" is supposedly an advanced fiction-writing technique. Flashback in beginning fiction is the equivalent of the downcased "i" in beginning poetry. It is a borrowed form of originality, and its reasoning is that "Other people do it."

I always give students this lecture hoping they won't waste their efforts on what I call the Barstool or Bathtub story. That's when you tack your character on a barstool and have him do nothing but think back on sordid past events. Don't show him thinking about sordid events. At least show him living the sordid events. Don't put your main character in the bathtub and keep her there while you describe her reveries or resentments. The reader, who reads a story wanting to enter a world where people do things, realizes early on that your character isn't going to do anything but sit, and is disappointed.
Mar 03

Don't Let Your Prologue Give Your Novel Away

I'm having the most fascinating experience: reading and critiquing the first 30 pages of the manuscripts of almost 30 different novels. The first 30 pages is what agents and editors ask for, and it's said, "If the novel doesn't take off in the first 30 pages, it will never take off" and they won't read more. Some of the mss. are good, some are better than good, but close to three-quarters of them have introductions and/or prologues.

Leaving aside the dedications, acknowledgements or introductions that "explain" the book, or why or how it was written -- "front matter" which in novels will always be cut -- there's often a prologue describing the climax of the story. And then the actual story begins, in chapter 1, with a flashback. Apparently the whole novel will be told in flashback, leading up to the climactic moment that has already been described up front and has given the whole story away.

And then, reading the novel's Chapter One, I see that the novel would work perfectly fine without the give-away prologue. I believe that the give-away prologue is the child of noir or detective movies and fictions which start with a corpse and flash back to tell the story of how and why the person was murdered. Authors of other kinds of fictions who want to use prologues should be reminded: PROlogues are for telling the PRE-beginning of a story, not giving away the end of it!
Jan 22

On Last-Minute Revisions and Touchups

Once in a while, after a tiring day, as a sort of nightcap I might pluck from the shelf one of my books and page through, and soon it all comes back: the joy and stress involved in the book’s creation and completion; the tussle with the universe to extract from it a fitting title; the stories behind word choices, stories only I will ever know; the people who freely gave me their most fragile possession: their trust. My thoughts might run:  “That thought was inspired and it reads like it,” or I hunt for flaws. “That middle initial should be G, not J; how did I not catch it?” “Shouldn’t have tinkered with that." Last-minute rewrites of my work, even half a sentence, feel and look to me like crudely sewn knee patches on jeans. Musician Les Paul said after a recording session, “Leave the mistakes in there; let them know we’re human.” That’s a great concept, especially when paired with Miles Davis saying about his art, “Don’t worry about mistakes. There are none."

Jan 20

If I'd Known I Was Going to Live This Long...

Doc looking at MRIs of my spine said, Do you over-sit?

I once had the Romantic notion that I wouldn't live beyond my thirties, but I did, go figure, and accumulating hours upon hours, year after yeachairr in a chair, as writers do, ultimately wrecks your spine. Doesn't matter if you sit straight or on an expensive task chair or a medicine ball; bodies weren't made to sit for hours. Ergonomic gear is designed to make workers more productive, not healthier. And spinal degeneration doesn't go away. I've taken to spending half my writing day standing up, my computer on the dishwasher top. It's just the right height.

Seeking prevention advice (my favorite here), I find unanimous agreement on this: Get up and move, hourly. Stretching arms upward and back while still seated is ineffective; you must rise from the chair and move, or at least touch your toes. I know it sounds like a pain to get up every hour, but just as you wouldn't smoke because it's bad for you, or read in poor light, you wouldn't want to oversit. I know how it is when we're on deadline or pursuing a big inspiration.  But be aware. "If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself." - Eubie Blake
Jun 22

The Green Light for Creative Writing

EXERCISE: 1. Close your eyes and picture a traffic light, any type you want. 2. Make the light turn green. 3. Hold the picture of the green traffic light in your mind. Try to hold the picture for at least 15 seconds. 4. Picture the green traffic light whenever you think or hear stuff like this:

"I can't get an agent" "Writers never make money" "Nobody wants the kind of stuff I write" "Artists are doomed to be outsiders" "I wish I'd been born with another talent"

Gently, shine the green light on these thoughts. You have a green light to write -- whatever you want -- and be great.

Having trouble picturing a green light? Draw a traffic light. Draw rays coming out of the green lamp.

Every time you see a green light, no matter where you are, tell yourself, "That's the green light for my writing."
Page 1 of 2