Jun 27

Advice to a Co-Worker Leaving Her Job to Enter an MFA Program

  • 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.
May 05

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.
Apr 25

What People Say

A very serious young student heard me read from my poems. I asked her opinion later. (Never do that.) She said, "Cute."

She was being pompous in a twentysomething way (recalling too well my own flaming youth), but this lodged in me like a grain of sand in an oyster. Of all the things I've been and ever aimed to be, I've never wanted to be cute. I'd like to be entertaining, like Chaucer, but also have his smarts. Coy, kittenish -- no!

A hundred defenses occured to me: She doesn't register my feminist politics -- because she's so young she never had to have any! -- She has no idea what poetry costs! -- and so forth.

Then I saw this Soviet-era quotation from a poem addressed to poets:

“[…]/ This is for you—who dance and pipe on pipes,/ sell yourselves openly,/ sin in secret,/ and picture your future as academicians/ with outsized rations./ I admonish you,/ I—/ genius or not—/ who have forsaken trifles/ and work in Rosta*,/ I admonish you—/ before they disperse you with rifle-butts/ Give it up!/ Give it up!/ Forget it./ Spit/ on rhymes/ and arias/ and the rose bush/ and other such mawkishness/ from the arsenal of the arts./ […] There are no fools today/ to crowd open mouthed round a “maestro”/ and await his pronouncement./ Comrades!/ give us a new form of art—/ an art/ that will pull the republic out of the mud.”

Spot-on, I thought. Was that what my student had meant? But has a poet ever done that? Maybe Whitman? But with such a muddied republic as ours is? Can it be done? What would it cost me? Should a poet care what it might cost?

[from The Bedbug and Selected Poems, by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Indiana University Press, 1975. Translated from Russian by Edwin Morgan. *"Rosta" is a contraction of "Russian Telegraph Agency"; the line's connotation is "and give my all for our people."]
Feb 21

How Embarrassed I Am, Part I

Every writer has an embarrassment or two somewhere -- the first few publications, things we were so proud of that never should have seen the light of day. My first published short story was about a lesbian rejected by her family. The next was about an African-American woman who loved the blues and Hollywood musicals. I knew nothing about either situation including musicals but figured hey, it's fiction, I can make up what I want, right? Can't I? It's a free country! In my teens I put extra swearwords into a short story after I won a prize for it and got to read it aloud to a roomful of fellow students. Several years later I witnessed another young writer doing the same, and felt about 50 percent better, although my embarrassment is still such that 35 years later I will not attend class reunions. And what a firebrand I was, writing editorials for the student paper, so much so that I got taken to the woodshed by the faculty advisor. All I can say is: Wow, I had nuts! It was the 1970s! The first poet I ever saw was Nikki Giovanni, who wrote about cleaning her gun, for Chrissakes. I was reading feminist poetry in The Hand that Cradles the Rock and Mountain Moving Day. I don't recall that I ever read any short fiction before producing my own.

I was going to say how I can't forgive myself my premature publications and missteps, but realized that writers grow up in public, more so, than say, business or pre-med majors. There is still every chance that a fire will consume the archives. I wonder how it'll be for the young writers growing up online. I sure am glad there was no Internet when I was 19.