Saturday, October 22, 2016

Advice from Writers I’ve Mentored and Taught

In this blog I’m featuring advice from writers I’ve mentored when they were students or interns. I’m so proud of the many writers I’ve worked with over the years who have become excellent published authors in their own right.

Tara Ballard studied with me at University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA). Her recent poems include “Unfinished Letter to Officer [Insert Name]” in HEArt Online. Tara’s advice:

Don’t try to dictate the direction of the poem as you are drafting. Examine your tendencies and habits. 

Kersten Christianson was a mentee at UAA. She is working on a chapbook, What Caught Raven’s Eye, through Petroglyph Press. Her creative manuscript Something Yet to Be Named will be published by Aldrich Press in July 2017.  Kersten’s advice:

Write what is most important to  you. Read globally, expand your literary citizenship.  

Allison DeLauer is a poet who also writes for performers. Allison studied with me at California College of the Arts (CCA). Her publications include the chapbook, Eve Out West; and a fascinating and witty poem called “The Neighbors Knew I Divined Water.” Her advice:

Spend time walking outdoors. Use the microphone on your phone to record your poem-thoughts, when walking. 

Makenzie DeVries is a poet who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, and studied with me at UAA. She’s been published in Duty Bound from the Alaska Humanities Forum. Her advice:

This is relevant to me these days, being the crazy busy person I have unfortunately become: make time to write, at least a couple days a week. Well—at least one day a week.

Gibson Fay-LeBlanc was an intern for the Lunch Poems Reading Series at UC Berkeley when I was the coordinator there. His poems have recently been published in Field, jubilat, the Literary Review, and are forthcoming in Poetry Northwest. Gibson’s recommendations:

I’ve always been partial to Philip Levine's advice: “Fuck writer’s block. Lower your standards.” Levine was repeating advice from William Stafford, though he added the f-bomb for fun. It’s a reminder that I find I often need, and I repeat it to students (though I might substitute “forget” for the swear if they’re young). We have to be willing to write anything, even and maybe especially the terrible stuff, to get to what’s real and worth pursuing. 

Margaret Elysia Garcia was my student at University of San Francisco. She writes fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and plays—yes, and she’s good at all of them. Her audiobook, Mary of the Chance Encounters, was produced by Wretched Productions. recently collected 15,000 books for the school library in the town of Indian Valley, California, where she lives. See this news item. Her advice:

Take interest in and promote other writers. Too many writers—especially women writers—do not take themselves seriously. Own what it is you do and find the community that will support your voice. I used to try writing from home, but home can be invaded by other identities and other people. Now I write from my little office with another writer typing away upstairs and it has made all the difference.

Martha Grover was my mentee at CCA. She’s published two books of nonfiction: One More for the People and The End of My Career, both from Perfect Day Publishing. Her suggestion for writers:


One great piece of advice was given to me by my very first creative writing teacher, the poet Joseph Millar. He would often tell us to “put this poem in a drawer and take it out again in three to six months.” I think we often give up too easily on our writing, or edit it to death. The point is to let time pass and be able to look at the piece with fresh eyes. Good writing takes time. 

Andrea Hackbarth studied with me at UAA. Two recent poems of hers were published in Mezzo Cammin. Her advice:

Always read more than you write. Spend time reading and rereading the poets and other writers that you love. When you do write, aim for that kind of greatness.

Alice-Catherine Jennings also was a student in the UAA program. She recently published a chapbook: Katherine of Aragon A Collection of Poems. Alice suggests:

Study another language. It will increase your vocabulary, shake up your syntax, and change the way you think.

Mandy Kahn was an intern in the Lunch Poems Series at UC Berkeley when I was the coordinator there. Mandy’s numerous publications include the critically acclaimed poetry collection Math, Heaven, Time and a wise and thoughtful blog, “Thirteen Thoughts on Poetry in the Digital Age,” in the Huffington Post. Her advice:

Love the making process and all you make will carry love.

Laura LeHew was a student of mine at CCA. Her books of poetry include Becoming from Another New Calligraphy and Willingly Would I Burn from MoonPath Press.

My advice to writers is to be an entrepreneur. Writing is your business. If you are not writing you should be submitting and if you are not submitting you should be writing. Rejection happens, don’t take it personally. Network, join a professional organization like the AWP or your local or state association. Network with the people who run reading series. Start a reading series. Volunteer and/or intern. Start a blog. Join Facebook. Have your own website. Collaborate with other writers on interesting projects. Run and/or participate in critique groups. Give a workshop. Teach. Align yourself with a good mentor and then pay it back by mentoring others.

Myron Michael is a poet and essayist who studied with me at CCA. He won the Eastern Iowa Review’s experimental essay award. His advice:

Make time to write. All of the good things.

Rheea Mukherjee, who studied with me at CCA, just published an engaging first book of short stories, Transit for Beginners, from Kitaab International in Singapore. Rheea lives in Bangalore, India. Her advice:

It’s an essential time for writers to explore “the other”—mentally, physically, spiritually, and politically. Stepping into the shoes of the unknown and writing from that perspective can bring new potential and purpose to writing and its place in our world. 

Mae Remme studied with me at UAA. Her recent works include a powerful prose poem, “Bloody Marys,” in Tethered by Letters. Mae’s advice:

When inspiration hits, even if the timing isn't right to sit and put it all on paper (or screen) take note. I have too often thought I would never forget an idea only to later lose the line, image, or revision. And one of the many things Zack advised that stuck was even if a revision comes to mind after you submit or publish a piece, still make the revision for future opportunities.  

Lisa Stice was my mentee at UAA. Her first book of poems, Uniform, from Aldrich Press, deals with the moving experiences of the wife of a U.S. Marine. Her advice:

Don’t give up on writing or submitting. There’s going to be writer’s block. Push through and be open to what you need to write, instead of what you want to write. There will be rejection. Once you find your niche as a writer, you’ll more easily find the journals and publishers that are right for your work.

Laura Wetherington was a Lunch Poems intern at UC Berkeley. Her book A Map Predetermined and Chance was selected for the National Poetry Series and published by Fence Books. Her advice:

Write everyday, even if just for five minutes. A daily practice keeps the creative pump primed.


I feel so lucky for all the amazing students I’ve worked with in my teaching and mentoring. I’m grateful that I’ve had the chance to keep the river running.—Zack

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Friday, October 14, 2016

Reflections on Bob Dylan Receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature

On the one hand…I’m absolutely thrilled. It feels like an incredible affirmation of the beliefs and aesthetic that I cut my teeth on. I remember listening over and over to Dylan’s albums Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited in the late 1960s.

One of my most vivid Dylan memories is hanging out in a café in Marrakesh, Morocco, in the summer of 1970 with the temperature 125 degrees Fahrenheit (52 degrees Celsius), drinking a peach and kefir drink over ice and listening to Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album again and again, since it was the only record they had.

Bob Dylan’s music was so much a part of the counterculture and radical politics of the 1960s that it feels like the Nobel Prize went to the entire movement, as if the award actually belongs in that café in Morocco or to the be-ins in Central Park with acid heads gyrating like helicopters in clothes as multicolored as reptile skins.

Dylan is the master of the kiss-off-your-old-lover song, a particular variation on the ballad that he perfected:

When we meet again
Introduced as friends
Please don’t let on that you knew me when
I was hungry, and it was your world.

(“Just Like a Woman”)

He has that lovely snarl in his voice that sounds like Woody Guthrie reincarnated as a schnauzer. I think many of the best recordings of Dylan’s songs are by women, like Etta James’s rendition of “Gotta Serve Somebody” or the jazz vocalist Barbara Sfraga’s almost a capella version of “Every Grain of Sand” or Mary Travers shaking her blond Niagara while she croons “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Something about the combination of Dylan’s hard edge and the heart of a great chanteuse feels like justice to me. Has anyone  yet compiled the Women Sing Dylan anthology?

Bob Dylan freed poetry from the prison of the page. He is a modern troubadour, a true successor to the Provençal poets who roamed the hill towns of Southern France in the Middle Ages using their lutes to find rhyming forms that had never existed, even in Granada.

On the other hand…every literary prize always makes me think almost more of the writers who didn’t win or have never received that honor. What about the novelists and essayists and poets who’ve done the hard work of assembling a lifetime of work, an entire shelf of words. What has Bob Dylan written to compare to Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto and memoir Truth and Beauty, for instance; or Tawara Machi, who has remade the ancient tanka form; or Argentina’s Ana María Shua, the master of flash fiction and author of more than forty books?

Ana María Shua
Not to mention Leonard Cohen, who, like Bob Dylan, has married poetry and song lyrics in his own way, maybe with more compassion and wisdom.

In the end, isn’t the whole point of the Nobel Prize for Literature that it gets us to read writers whose work we wouldn’t know otherwise? And since we already know Dylan, every phase of his work from folk to rock to neo-country, more numerous than Picasso’s periods, what has the world gained by this award? Isn’t this a missed opportunity to introduce the community of readers to a neglected genius?


Maybe. But I still get a thrill every time I hear “Tangled Up in Blue.”

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Monday, October 10, 2016

The Basket Poem

Not long ago I wrote a blog where I talked about Walt Whitman’s celebrated poem, “I Hear America Singing.” In discussing this poem, I realized that it’s actually part of a category of poems that I would call “basket poems.”

In a basket poem, a writer comes up with a container that many different events or things can be gathered into. For example, in Whitman’s poem, he collects incidents where he hears or imagines Americans singing while they work. In the first line, Whitman describes the basket that he’s going to use to assemble all these images:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear

Then he proceeds to put one incident after another into his basket:

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the      steamboat deck…

All in all, Whitman describes eleven different types of workers, each with a different task, each with a different song.

I can imagine Whitman getting the idea for this poem by hearing two or three of these singers during a stroll around his neighborhood in Brooklyn. He then either stayed attentive to others who sing while they work, or invented or remembered the rest. Whitman’s basket for this poem is: American worker singing. The poem becomes an assortment of these different carolers, each one representing the dignity and joy of honest, democratic labor. It’s a sort of innocent socialist realism, before there was actually such a thing as socialist realism. Maybe we could call it “socialist lyricism.”

Interestingly, the poem does not arbitrarily list these workers and their songs. It begins with the heavier sorts of labor: mechanic, carpenter, mason, boatman. It then becomes somewhat more domestic and rural, and the time of day changes to a later hour, the end of the workday:

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown…

Then the singer/workers become distinctively female:

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing…

Finally Whitman ends the poem not with daytime labor but with the fun and leisure of the nighttime after work is done:

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Whitman’s poem is an excellent template for a basket poem:

1) Choose a category of images, incidents, objects, or phrases.
2) Collect a satisfyingly diverse assortment of like objects or phrases in your basket.
3) Sort the objects in the basket so they form a sort of order.
4) Begin and/or end with an object or phrase or image that doesn’t quite match the others, that provides some closure, some break in the list.

You might ask, “What’s the difference between a basket poem and a list poem?” Well, a list poem could also be a basket poem. But a basket poem doesn’t have to be a list. I wouldn’t exactly call “I Hear America Singing” a list, though it has list-like qualities. In fact, a basket poem doesn’t have to be a list at all.

I’m thinking about Mary Ruefle’s poem, “Merengue.” After the first three introductory lines, the whole poem is a series of questions. 

Mary Ruefle
You could hardly call this poem a list. But I would call it a basket poem, since Mary Ruefle collected questions that interested her, put them in her poetic basket, and formed a poem out of them. Here is the middle section of the poem:

Did you learn how to cut a pineapple,
open a coconut?
Did you carry a body once it had died?
For how long and how far?
Did you do the merengue?
Did you wave at the train?
Did you finish the puzzle, or save it for morning?

All these experiences seem like possibilities for fairly simple activities that we could know in a lifetime. The poem’s implicit question is, to my mind, “Have you lived life to its fullest, or have you failed to experience many wonderful things?” What’s lovely about the poem is that this most important question is left unasked. Was it Alice Notley who said, “What you want to say in a poem is what you should leave out”? “Merengue” is a fine example of that.

Like Whitman, Mary Ruefle begins and ends her poems with lines that don’t fit in the same category as her basket, which is questions about simple actions. She starts and ends the poem with declarations, allowing for both an introduction to her list at the beginning, and closure at the end. She also prepares us for the ending by tackling bigger issues in the last two questions:

Have you been born?
What book will you be reading when you die?

Although the last question might seem somewhat random, it does continue the subject of life and death that the previous, ambiguous question broaches.


Basket poems can take a surprisingly long to time write. It may happen that the category you choose to put into your basket is a fairly obscure one. The more esoteric the basket, the longer it will probably take to fill. Remember to sort the objects—they can’t all be equal or have the same resonance, or you will have nothing more than a shopping list with no beginning or end. Once you have collected all your objects or phrases in the basket, you might also have to add or subtract in order to form the pattern that the objects seem to want to be part of.

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