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Tuesday, 28 June 2011 04:22

Solzhenitsyn

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"He wrote, that while an ordinary man was obliged 'not to participate in lies,' artists had greater responsibilities. 'It is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie!'"

That's from the NYT last week, after Solzhenitsyn died. Mainly I remember how he and his bone-shattering books embarrassed the liberal intelligentsia in the 1980s, when I lived in Boston among, but not of, the Cambridge cognoscenti. They didn't like his shamelessly truthful chronicles of the great failure of the Soviet experiment -- such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Gulag Archipelago, or even Cancer Ward. They spoke of his work as "fiction."

Russians have a saying, "Eat bread and salt and speak the truth." Solzehnitsyn was a blunt and truthful witness and that's worth more than a hundred witty and cultured Cambridge cognoscenti.
Tuesday, 28 June 2011 04:20

"Starving in a Garret"

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Writer (usually poet) is always, in the popular mind, "starving in a garret." I wondered whence came this phrase and image of our profession. Looked it up. The original "born in a cellar and living in a garret"comes from the 18th century. The word "starving" replaces "living" in the19th century, whence comes this romantic 1856 painting, "Death of Chatterton." Seventeen-year-old poet Thomas Chatterton committed suicide in 1770. He actually WAS going to starve, and chose to poison himself. The phrase and image endure; has nobody come up with anything more accurate? I mean, bummer!

Credit Lord Byron, in "Childe Harold" (1812) for making a powerfully attractive figure out of a brooding, reckless young artist who, in real life, would give anybody a pain. I can see Byronic poets wearing black and smoking cigarettes on Delmar Blvd. even today.
The late Carol Bly wrote a probing, wholly adult textbook on short-fiction writing, called The Passionate, Accurate Story (1990, Milkweed Editions), always my choice as the fiction text for my Introduction to Creative Writing course. Heather Clark of the Washington University Bookstore told me that Milkweed had 5 copies left, not enough to fill my order for this fall, and it wasn't printing more, but would send those 5 if I wanted; plus:

"[Milkweed] cannot technically sell the books to us since it has been declared out of print. They are going to 'donate' them to us. I cannot charge a student for a book that was donated to us. So I gave her my shipping number so we can be charged for the shipping. I will contact you when the books arrive and give them to you to distribute to your students, or for your students to share. If you have any questions, let me know."

Free books for my students, direct from the publisher!? What a delight! For such a great book! (It's available used.) Ms. Bly (1930-2007; pictured) would have loved this! I'd be a fool to ask questions!
Tuesday, 28 June 2011 04:14

How to Anger a Poet

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Now, I know enough to PICK my battles, but for Christ's sake PLEEZE, America, cut me some slack and don't show me any more course descriptions like this one I saw today:

"POETS AT HEART": We’re all poets at heart. In this course we will address several poetry forms and devices. Class reports will be made defining these forms and devices and each week we will write and read poems (our own and other poets’). Our goal is to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of poetry, along with enhancing our abilities to write poetry. Remember, anybody can write poetry. (Text: Poetry For Dummies.)
Tuesday, 28 June 2011 04:13

When Poets Gave Orders

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"We order that the poets’ rights be revered:

  • To enlarge the scope of the poet’s vocabulary with arbitrary and derivative words (word-novelty).
  • To feel an insurmountable hatred for the language existing before their time.
  • To push with horror off their proud brow the wreath of cheap fame that You have made from bathhouse switches [clearer translation: "from toothpicks"].
  • To stand on the rock of the word “we,” amidst the sea of boos and outrage."
The above is from the Russian Futurists' manifesto, "A Slap in the Face of Public Taste," 1912. By comparison, our poets are people-pleasers and wusses. Each of these century-old demands is, for poets in 2008, a total taboo. We say, "I don't think your experiment with coining new words is very successful," and "I don't know where you'll find a market for this," and "If only I could make it into Best American Poetry 2009," and "I can't figure out who is that collective 'we' being referenced in your poem."

By comparison, how timid we are! And how powerless! Are those things linked?
Tuesday, 28 June 2011 04:11

It Hurts to Be First

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A small group of fellow writers, acquaintances, good people all, asked me to meet with them to get some guidance about a self-publishing project. I asked to be paid $100 for this, and through the contact person we set a date to meet.

Then the contact person sent a polite and apologetic email saying the group was following the leads I had suggested to them previously, had learned what they felt they needed to know, and frankly some of them had been uncomfortable with the idea of paying me -- someone they knew -- and therefore had decided not to meet with me after all.

It hurt. Clearly, the money was the sticking point. I feel embarrassed having asked for it. I think the writers' perceptions of me have changed. But I wouldn't be following my own advice if I had bartered a Sunday afternoon, a 40-mile round trip, and hard-won expertise for "Thank you, you're very generous" and "Isn't she a nice girl." I want to say, "I AM a nice girl. But I'm 51 and if you've noticed that I'm on the skinny side these days, it's not because I'm dieting."

As small as this incident is, as small as I feel, this was a victory in the battle for writers to get paid.
Tuesday, 28 June 2011 04:10

How I Changed My Luck Some More

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So, last year I put some sample poems online at poemhunter.com, and recently a photographer, a stranger, found the poem called "Blue Chicory," and requested permission to reprint it on her blog, alongside her artistic photo of a blue chicory blossom. And I said yes of course yes.

Without the Net, Ms. Dyer would never have read the poem. Without poemhunter.com it wouldn't have been posted. With poemhunter.com the author was easily traceable so that permission could be requested and granted.

Put a few of your own favorite poems on poemhunter.com, preferably if they've already been published and rights have reverted to you. If unpublished, they count as published when you post them, so think twice. It's a good place to post poems YOU love that no editor seems to like. Yes, a lot of stuff on poemhunter.com is dross, but certainly not yours, and you open up a chance for good things to happen. Even a small good thing. Every little bit builds confidence.
Tuesday, 28 June 2011 04:08

How I Changed My Luck

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After about 35 years spent alone writing, I needed a change. I'm ashamed to say I had some mummified notions, 20 or 30 years old: Real writers work solo, right? Writers' groups are for old ladies who look and smell like roses, right? (To be honest, I did meet once with a group just like that, but I let it prejudice me.) And with my schooling, what did I have left to learn?

So in the past 6 months I've become a member of the St. Louis Writers Guild, the St. Louis Poetry Center, the St. Louis Publishers Association, the Loosely Identified women's poetry group, and the Missouri Writers Guild.

Fortunately all the above groups are vibrant, active, well-established (90+ years for the St. Louis Writers' Guild; 25+ years for Loosely Identified) and run a tight ship, so I'm getting suggestions for my work, making friends, seeing awesome work in progress, getting invitations to parties and to submit manuscripts -- I had 3 poems taken that way -- easy! -- Also, tipoffs about hot writer websites (see the links at left) and good blogs, forums, seminars, and chances to do more and do it better. My whole mood has changed. And because of that, I've tried other positive things. How glad I am that I got into the car and joined the living!
  • Get to know everyone.
  • Attend every literary event that you can.
  • Keep a journal.
  • When you’re suffering, telephone (don’t E-mail) a fellow student.
  • Your mistakes are okay.
  • Understand that some of your fellow students applied to the MFA program and didn’t get in, so they are getting a regular M.A., and boy are they jealous of you.
  • If you teach freshman composition, know that some of your students cannot be saved.
  • Sleep on it before submitting it to workshop.
  • Love affairs that start in the first weeks of grad school will end badly.
  • Get a bicycle.
  • Make yourself go to your writing professor’s office during office hours, just to chat.
  • If you need money, get a part-time job no matter what your contract with the college says.
  • Don't bug famous writers to help you, because they won't.
  • It's not an illusion: Male and female writers are not treated the same.
  • You'll get discouraged sometimes, but don’t let anybody stop you.
Monday, 09 May 2011 04:38

Annie Dillard Helped

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Annie Dillard (nee Meta Ann Doak) helped me today as I chose 6 unpublished poems to submit to an anthology that is no sure thing, that I suspect might never be finished or published. So I wanted to hold back a couple of poems just too good for it, thinking: I bet these could impress a bigger editor -- later. Then Dillard's words came to mind:
"One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better."
And I sent my 6 best poems and felt the rightness of it, the healthiness of having set them free, trusting that I will write even better ones. Thank you, Annie.