Aug 29
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So You Want a BFA. . .

Young people considering writing careers sometimes ask about the BFA>MFA track and I tell them, "No! Anything but that!" And mean it. Biology! Classics! Business! Please, please use your undergraduate years to learn something besides creative writing! I know a New Yorker short-story writer who graduated from the Colorado School of Mines. The story that made him famous is about cavemen.

In my experience the best possible background if teenagers can't wait to see themselves in print before they're really ready is journalism. Journalism school teaches how to observe and write about something besides yourself. You learn to write hard news, features and profiles, all requiring fantastically different strategies and skills. You practice doing research, interpreting statistics and trends, doing interviews. I hope J-school still teaches ethics and accountability. It pushes you out on the street and tells you not to come back until you get and write the story.

That happens to be my own background. There wasn't a BFA in creative writing so I wanted to be an English major. My parents wanted me to learn a trade so I went to J-school and owe it everything. I was taught to write clearly and be responsible for what I wrote. Also, ultimately my work serves others, whether it's information or entertainment. All those apply to creative writing. I lived on what I learned in J-school while getting my MFA. BFA doesn't mean you learned anything about writing. Journalism means that you did. And you know the famous names who were journalists before they were novelists: Dreiser, Hemingway, and so on.

BFA>MFA>(and, oh no!) Ph.D in Creative Writing . . .and you'll still have to hand over your writing sample to answer, "Can you write?"
Aug 04
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Make Big $ Writing Alumni Profiles

For all freelance writers who want to (or have to) write for college-alumni magazines, don't go crazy; save your soul and sanity by using this template. Copying or reprinting just this template, though, requires permission from me, the author.

On the job, NAME, class of ___, is busily working on ___________. NAME recently won the ___________award for ­­___________, but is not contented to rest on his well-earned laurels. “It was a great honor,” said NAME, “but there’s much more to be done.” He points to the ___________, adding, “___________.”

NAME, a native of ___________, has been ___________ for ___ years, and before that, ___________. “I was lucky to ___________,” NAME said. “And I am so grateful for my time at ___________University. A professor in the ___________department, Dr. ___________, was like a mentor to me and urged me to follow my dreams.”

In his [lab/book-lined office] NAME works most of the time on ___________ but also is responsible for ___________. He is the “go-to” person for ___________. And there is always the challenge of securing funding for his projects. “It takes a lot of time and teamwork,” he said.

NAME is married to___________, who is a professional ___________, and has two children: ___________, age ___, who attends [name of fancy private school], and daughter ___________, whom they adopted from China. The family lives in a renovated home in ___________, and NAME enjoys ___________ and ___________ when he can, although his work is always on his mind. “It’s not so much a career as a calling,” he explained.

His colleague ___________said, “I admire NAME’s commitment to ___________. On the job he always gives 110 percent. At the same time he’s very down-to-earth and approachable.” Another colleague, ___________, said “Although he’s achieved so much already, ___________. He’s a great inspiration and role model.”

NAME’s reputation for excellence is gaining him leverage in the ___________community, and funding is being sought for [expansion/equipment] which will ___________. “Not only will this ___________, but it will also, hopefully, ___________,” he said. That will fulfill a lifelong dream. He is already planning for ___________.

NAME says the values he learned at ___________University were crucial to his success. “Technology has certainly changed the face of the profession,” he said, “but the goal is the same. Ultimately it’s all about providing people with the best possible ___________.”

And “___________,” he smiled, “___________.”

Jul 27
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Talking With: Peter Leach, About His First Published Novel

Peter Leach in 2011 won the Gival Press Award, its prize the publication of his first novel, Gone by Sundown, which is also the winner of a bronze medal from the IPPY independent publishers association. Set in St. Genevieve, MO in the 1930s, this vivid, class-conscious story is based on a real murder trial and resulting eviction of all the town’s black residents, ordered to be “gone by sundown.”

Leach stayed productive while his novel inched toward publication; he has 16 more books in manuscript. Peter Leach was born and grew up in St. Louis. He studied playwriting at Yale Drama School, had an NEA Grant for creative writing, and his fiction has appeared in many literary magazines. His short-story collection Tales of Resistance won the George Garrett Prize and was published by Texas Review Press in 1999. Gone by Sundown is available through Amazon.com and on the shelves at Left Bank Books. Leach says, “I don’t have a lot to show for my efforts. There were long patches between very modest publications and awards. I keep at it because it gives me satisfaction. It is what I do. I would become demented by strong drink, behave badly far more often than Igonebysundownforblog do, and who knows what, if I were not writing fiction.”

Q: Your fiction is rooted in real events and you research your books like a historian. Why not present these stories as nonfiction? They’d be easier to publish.

A: It’s certainly true that nonfiction sells more readily.  Many agents won’t touch fiction.  Let them pry the poetic license from my cold dead hands.  Fiction is what I do.

Q: You have 16 completed books in manuscript. What are you working on now?

A: I am now working on White Folks Bearing Gifts, about Cookie Thornton’s murderous rampage at Kirkwood City Hall, February 7, 2008.

Q: Tell us how you wrote Gone By Sundown.

Someone in St. Genevieve, I forget who, mentioned the driving out of the black people from St. Genevieve in the 1930s. I used as sources two weekly local newspapers, the St. Genevieve Herald and the Fair Play, reading on microfilm all the issues from 1929 through 1941. The two black men and the black woman accused of murdering two white limestone workers and inciting the eviction are real, as are the novel’s “old French Colored” characters, the Ribeau brothers. Attorney Sidney Redmond is based on a man who later headed the St. Louis NAACP. The excursion train that people took to see Holt Hardy’s hanging is based on actual events in Sedalia, Missouri.

I prowled Ste. Genevieve and the surrounding rural landscape with topographic maps, talked to people who had some memory of the events, took pictures, and toured the Mississippi Lime works on the edge of town, immense caverns eighty feet high, and their kilns.

The novel’s working title had been Negro Clean, to suggest analogies to the ethnic cleansings in Bosnia and Rwanda. My then-agent sent out ten copies of the manuscript, re-titled St. Genevieve 1937. The first replies objected to the dialect. A favorable letter came from a man at Ecco Press, who suggested making the character Redmond more central. I went through three extensive rewrites. After parting with that agent I finally changed my first-person narration to close-in third person. That was when I put it through yet another revision, to just about what it is now.

But where would I send it, when the ten most likely publishers had already seen it? Finally I went through the last two issues of Poets and Writers and submitted it to six or seven contests.  I almost did not send it to the contest it won, because the entry fee was $50.

Q: What started you writing fiction?

A: I won fourth prize in a city-wide contest sponsored by Scholastic Magazine when I was 14, and at 15 won second prize. My father dreamt of writing like Sherwood Anderson but ended up in advertising.  He cherished an encouraging handwritten rejection from the fiction editor of Esquire.  He subscribed to Story Magazine, a monthly. It had stories by Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. Starting at age 14 I read through every issue he had. My catching the bug to write fiction pleased my father no end. 
Jul 21
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Find Your Publisher in Less Than One Day

While your professional editor finalizes your book manuscript, begin seeking possible publishers. Taking one afternoon to do the following simple steps will save you days and weeks of scattershot effort.

1. Find books similar to yours in your personal library, public library and bookstore, and write down the names of the publishers. Don't quit until you have at least 20 names (there are so many publishers nowadays!!).

2. Take this list and find each publisher's website to see whether the publisher is still in business, has a current catalog, and, under "Writers Guidelines" or "Submissions," read about what kinds of books or authors they are looking for; and YOU decide whether it looks like a publisher YOU would like to work with. Make a note of your best finds.

3. While you are on "Writers Guidelines," check whether the firm likes to correspond 1) by snail mail or 2) by email; and whether your first contact should be with a) a query letter b) a query letter with sample chapters, synopsis, or table of contents ("T of C"), or something else, or c) if they want you to send the full manuscript. Write down the editor's full name so you will have someone to address your correspondence to.

4. Having now narrowed your list of possible publishers, Google each to find any news, reports, reviews, complaints, or other material confirming the reputation or economic health of this publisher.

5. Browse amazon.com or the shelves for recent books similar to yours. Make note of any books strongly resembling your own. These are "competing titles," and your publisher will want to know how your book differs from the books already available. That will be an important selling point.

Jul 15
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On Giving Up My Land Line

Tripping and cursing, hurrying to the bleating phone and grabbing it, I'd gasp "Hello" to some solicitor who'd reply, "Ms. [butcher my name], how are you today?" Or it'd be a recording telling me to crab to my state senator about some issue. Friends and family no longer called my land line, because I'd gradually disclosed to ever-widening circles my cellphone number, a series of digits never printed, closely guarded, granted only to the chosen. I gave up hoping for an eager call from an old flame or potential employer; they could find me on Facebook or LinkedIn. And the two-page bills embroidered with exotic taxes annoyed me. Finally I gathered the nerve to phone American Telephone and Telegraph and say, "Please cancel my land line."

I had to have someone else in the room with me to actually do it. I was scared. I've had land lines all my life. Without a land line, 911 responders couldn't locate my house; I was cutting it from their map. Also, I had liked my phone number. They're assigned randomly, but some of mine have been more graceful or memorable than others, or were more fun to say, or suited me spiritually. This one had come with the dwelling and seemed like its foundation. I was fond of it. But my cell number is fabulous. It trips off the tongue and walks on air, and if forced to choose, I'd choose the cell number. So goodbye.

Reports about brain cancer and salivary-gland cancers from cellphones -- I believe in them, and had wondered how to handle long cell conversations, but there's an app for that:  a speakerphone function, so I needn't clamp it to my ear. Unlike the land line, the cellular phone sometimes drops the call, but we all understand that it happens and forgive each other in advance for the inconvenience.

The phone company's employee surrendered without argument, saying only not to pay the current bill (because they bill in advance for the month to come; why aren't I ever paid in advance for the month to come?) and they'd send a prorated final bill. He said "Service will terminate within 24 hours." I then made one three-minute call to family, and after that the phone was stone silent. Dead. It was chilling.

The system had "hung up" on me.

I moved furniture and released the wire from the jack. Eleven years had yellowed it and dust made it sticky. Bagging the phone was like bagging a body. Never again would I dangle its receiver in the air to unravel kinks in the coils, watching physics in action in its wobbly spin. Never again to hear its dial tone, that warm wordless whine, a sound of the twentieth century, pitched to resemble a human voice.

Jun 15
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I've Had Enough of "You" (second person singular) in Poetry

The second-person "You", usually conjoined with present tense, as in (example)

"You take your mother's wedding dress from your closet,"

appears way too often in poetry drafts, including my own. Contemporary poets seem worried that using "I" is too "confessional" or too assertive. Some years ago poets wanted to be assertive, but currently it's important to seem humble and modest while practicing this most egoistic and self-indulgent of professions.

A "you" implies that there is an "I" but doesn't say so. I say, if it's an "I" poem, please come out of the closet and use "I."

The second-person "you" is technically an address either to the readers or to a specific person the poet knows. The "you" poem very often addresses an impaired, unlovable, absent or somehow guilty person. Therefrom comes the pleasure of using the "you," because you can expose him without naming names. "You" could also be the poet addressing himself or herself, especially regarding a past self such as the one who made a bad marriage. ("You put on the dress and veil/dreading your walk down the aisle to your father" usw.) Why should the rest of us read a poem addressed to your ex or your former self? Please be conscious of addressing poems to "You." It is bad if it is a habit. I catch and correct myself in later drafts.

The other alternative to "you" is the third-person pronoun "he" or "she." Here is where it's clear why the "you" is such an attractive option. Both "I" and the "he/she" demand greater nerve and attention to detail. The "I" should bare it all and articulate the unpleasant truth such as "I didn't want to marry him, but I was pregnant and married him for the sake of the child having a father and so my parents wouldn't harass me." The third-person "She" and "He" indicate people -- characters that must be detailed so as to resemble real people with mixed thoughts, feelings, and experiences. "You" is an outline, a faceless shadow figure -- to the audience. The poet uses "you" to hint at an entity rather than taking the trouble to describe it. It's just easier! The reader must figure out from the poet's dropped hints whom "you" might be -- an ex, a dying grandmother, a former self. I wonder what cultural rule poets are upholding when we could be direct and forthright but choose not to.

Jun 09
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Two "Things" That Will Improve Your Poems and Prose

Here's an easy way to improve your poetry and prose. I've noticed that many drafts, mine and others', include "placeholder" words. We use these words so often on a normal day that we might not realize they are like empty railroad boxcars. They exist to be filled (later) with specifics and meanings. The most common of these are:
  • Something
  • Nothing
  • Anything
  • Everything
  • Everywhere
  • Anywhere
  • Someone
  • Someplace
  • Somehow

If you're not careful you can end up with a line such as "Something happened and things changed," and it will sound so much like everyday speech you won't even notice it until "someone" in your workshop points it out! Especially, red-flag the word "thing" wherever you see it!

There are two "things" to do with these words (or rather, here are two suggestions for improving upon such wording when you find it):

1. Be precise; replace the vagary with the truth of the matter. Is it true that "There was nothing there"? Or was it more like, "The room had no furniture"? Was it "Somehow she got the money someplace," or "She tapped her relatives for money and borrowed from her friends"?

2.  See if you can excise the word. Example: "I will see her again sometime."

Jun 07
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What's "A Rhetorical Poem"?

Rhetorical poetry in the U.S. becomes common during periods of social unrest and comes from poets standing (for the duration of the poem) for some sort of movement or viewpoint. I am a rhetorical poet. Usually in school we say "Oh it's political poetry, we don't like that." We are taught to say that there are three kinds of poetry: Lyric, narrative and epic. They forgot "rhetorical." Because we don't name rhetorical poetry, we can't see it, although when you read or teach Langston Hughes' "Mother to Son," or Robert Pinsky's "The Shirt," a rhetorical poem is what you've got. It's there but unnamed. It's like eating grilled cheese and a pickle for lunch and not realizing it was a vegetarian meal. 

Rhetorical poetry is not simply writing a poem about the cause of the month. Carolyn Forche said, "To become a political poet, change your obsessions." You have to have something to say, feel it deeply, and take a stand on an issue. It helps if you're a good writer. It helps if you're part of a "we." "We" makes a poem political.

Here are some of my favorite knockout books of rhetorical poetry:

The Country Between Us, Carolyn Forche (about the U.S. in El Salvador; a highly honored book for good reason)
Power Politics, Margaret Atwood (sexual politics)
Here, Bullet, by Brian Turner (by U.S. soldier back from Iraq; Publisher's Weekly review begins, "The verse in this book is not good, but....timely"; sorry, PW: It's good.)
"A Woman is Talking to Death," by Judy Grahn (a single, powerful long poem, one of the great underground poems; collected in the book The Work of a Common Woman)
Crime Against Nature, Minnie Bruce Pratt (about how the poet lost custody of her sons because she's a lesbian; a book that richly deserved the award it won)
Dangerous Life, Lucia Perillo (about the threat of violence in women's lives)
Selected Poems of Wilfred Owen (soldier killed in World War I)

And many, many more. Yes, such poems have lyric and narrative elements. But they're also rhetorical poems. Don't leave home without them!

Jun 04
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A Rare Look Inside the Writer's Cabin

Began this blog five years ago this month. It's time to expose my workspace. That's a "kneeling chair" to keep mmyworkspace2012sizedsmally back straight. However, it does place compression on the spine. So I've got this other laptop I roam around with: porch, couch, bed, motel room, coffeehouse...

How'd I get to be a tenant in a log cabin in the woods? By luck, and picturing what I wanted, and enjoying the noises of mice in the attic and raccoons snarling and fighting outside all night. I save a lot of money by not having to go to B&Bs, apply to writers' colonies, on camping trips to get back to nature, and other getaways.
May 30
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University of Missouri Press on the Chopping Block

I'm sitting here with my first edition of Sexual Politics by Kate Millett (Doubleday, 1970), given to me by a boyfriend in 1975 as a joke. This was Millett's doctoral dissertation, the first to say something like, ""sex has a frequently neglected political aspect." It blew my mind. It blew the whole world apart. It's a doctoral dissertation.

It wasn't published by a university press, but it's the kind of thing that might have been if it hadn't had that incendiary title. We are now given to understand that university presses are a luxury. Even before "academic" was a rude word, very few people bought and read university press books: They are about ideas, history, culture, science, and so on, from highly specialized or unique points of view. It is easily if wrongly said that university press books are published primarily for their authors and their small academic circles. Yes, it's for their CVs, but it was also about getting air time, even a little, for facts and concepts just as valuable as any others -- some of them with the potential to explode the entire culture or a generation's thought patterns. Sure, scholarship is "heavy" reading. It does heavy lifting! Sometimes these very few readers, also teachers and/or writers, funnelled these ideas into the culture at large, down to the street level, and changed our conceptual thinking, whether the ideas themselves were right or not: Feminism. Literary theory. Gender studies. Biblical exegesis. Afrocentrism. Philosophy of language. Particle physics. That National Geographic had a political agenda. And so on. (P.S. Sexual Politics has been kept in print since the year 2000 by the University of Illinois Press.)

So a university press might look to a cost-cutter like a great luxury, although the University of Missouri Press, publishing between 25 and 50 books per year with a staff of 10 on a budget of around $400,000, was a miracle of cost-effectiveness. If they published each year only one idea or one fact that got out and got traction in our minds, an idea that got lived in, that's more than $400,000 worth of most anything else on campus will accomplish.
May 28
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Blue Material

cabaretPeople said hello and I briefly replied and excused myself to the rearmost room and its rearmost booth, where I sat quietly alone and ate a mozzarella stick for fuel to get through the 25-minute reading for Chance Operations last Monday night. The Chance Operations series run by St. Louis artists/poets Tony Renner and Chris Parr just celebrated its second anniversary. I had read there before and loved it; anything goes. So I had some risky / risque poems to read, work that, shall we say, painted with a broad brush, poems that normally would not see the light of day nor be aired. I didn't do "blue" material just to do it. The poems had actual content, and I am also interested in literary expectations and the boundaries between what is and isn't acceptable. Also at this point I have nothing to lose and for an artist this condition is ideal.

It went well. This entry is not about the work or how it was received (just fine!) but on the exceptional demands that "blue" material makes on the speaker. First I had to slenderize the poems so none of them sounded blue for blue's sake, making sure each line carried genuine content. At Chance Operations delivery really counts: Entertainment is valued. And real entertainers don't falter, shuffle through papers, get self-conscious, apologize for their material, mumble or mess up, and they care about timing and shadings in volume, speed and tone. They can't be worried about their clothes or looks, so I wore the simplest possible thing. I wanted first to have no patter at all before and between poems but saw I needed to give context at least twice but kept it very short. While rehearsing I kept revising, so the poems were not completed until the day of the reading. It was evening and I knew I would be physically tired before I even started, so I asked to "go first" and carefully geared myself up with a cup of coffee and protein, and sat alone to get focused and centered. It was going to take enormous confidence. I have never disciplined myself so severely for a poetry reading. The preparation paid off, though. Entertaining is no joke!

My co-readers on that evening were Eileen G'Sell and Gabriel Fried. The photo was taken by Tony Renner. Thanks to Chance Operations for the chance!
May 20
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The Ten Poets on U.S. Postage Stamps

Delighted to see at tpoetsstampshe post office -- and purchase -- a set of first-class postage stamps featuring first-class 20th-century American poets: Brodsky, Brooks, Williams, Hayden, Plath, Bishop, Stevens, Levertov, Cummings and Roethke. Seems like some of them were here just yesterday -- like Denise Levertov -- and I'd rather give that space to Howard Nemerov, whose poetry I like better -- but it's a fine gallery to start with. It's a sheet of 20 but features only 10 poets. Here's the Sylvia Plath stamp we have all been waiting for. Read or re-read the early works of Gwendolyn Brooks: wonderfully gymnastic, mind-bendingly original formal poetry. Of this entire group Brooks is the most underrated.