Thursday, February 21, 2013

AWP 2013 Boston: What’s New This Year

The 2013 conference of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) takes place from March 6 to 9 in Boston, Massachusetts. AWP is the largest gathering of writers, teachers of creative writing, and literary publishers in the United States. Eleven thousand attendees are expected at AWP. This year’s event is the fortieth anniversary of the conference, which was first held at the Library of Congress in Washington DC in 1973.

The 2013 conference promises to be the biggest to date, with 11,000 attendees, 1,900 presenters, and 700 exhibitors at the bookfair. Among the literary superstars appearing are Nobel laureates Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, and the popular English novelist Jeanette Winterson. Renowned U.S. poets at the event include Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Yusef Komunyakaa, Robert Pinsky, Patricia Smith, and many more.

In response to a question about what's new at AWP this year, Conference Director Christian Teresi remarks, "What's special about the conference in any given year is its ability to bring together writers of all ages, races, genders, and genre interests. The diversity of the writers, journals, and presses represented is always the thing that's most special to me."

Associate Conference Director Cynthia Sherman adds that "AWP is debuting Bookfair Stages this year." Bookfair Stages offers two reading venues within the bookfair space, one on each level. Some excellent literary presses and writing programs are sponsoring readings, including Red Hen Press, Mayapple Press, Salmon Poetry, Cleveland State University Press, Kattywompus Press, Marsh Hawk Press, Ploughshares magazine, and more. See the schedule for details. 

Each year AWP is held in a different city. Many of the events showcase the writers and literary institutions of the host region. This year there are quite a few New England events, including a panel on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter; readings by writers from Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont; and a panel on Boston’s literary history. There are also many events related to the United Kingdom and Ireland, including a panel on why the two sides of the Atlantic are so rarely aware of one another.

I feel that AWP is most useful to a writer if you go with a specific goal in mind. Think about your current needs as a writer. Do you have several pieces you’re ready to send to magazines? Have you got a manuscript for a new book that you’re hoping to find a publisher for? Do you have a new book just published that you want to publicize? Are you looking for a job or internship with a literary organization? Are you hoping to book readings at series? Do you want to get re-energized to go home and write? Pick a goal and stick to it.

For more information on how best to network at AWP, please see my blog from last year.

Zack Rogow will be reading at an offsite event at AWP on Wednesday, March 6 at 7:00 p.m. as part of the launch of Cornelius Eady's new chapbook/CD in the community room of Cambridge Cohousing, 175 Richdale Avenue in Cambridge MA. He'll also be speaking on two panels at AWP on Friday, March 8: Things We Know We Love: The Poems and Influence of Nazim Hikmet, from 10:30 to 11:45 a.m., room 305, Level 3; and  What Poets Learn When They Translate, from 1:30 to 2:45 p.m., room 204, level 2. He'll be signing copies of his latest book of poems, My Mother and the Ceiling Dancers, on Saturday, March 9, from noon to 1:15 at the Kattywompus Press table, booth 1111.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 

Friday, February 15, 2013

My Library Dilemma

Nowadays when I prowl the aisles of shelves in the public library looking for a book to read, it’s so difficult to find the right one. Sideways I read names of authors I don’t know, thinking about taking a chance on a book I’ve never heard of, and then I remember that German novel about the fresco restorers in Prague where I never got the sense of humor, and I hesitate.

 I even hesitate at the titles I’ve already read, not eager to repeat any experiences, reluctant to admit I wouldn’t remember the books anyway, like Middlemarch, which I was forced to read in Venice at age 20.
                                            George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans)

The only store I could find there with English books only had a few, but I ended up traveling so far into that world George Eliot created that I barely left my room in the pensione, foraying out occasionally into that city of mirrors and skies at sundown to watch the clouds gather at the apex of the heavens like soapsuds draining in a reverse bathtub, understanding why Tiepolo and Canaletto and Turner could not get enough of that city. 

                                       J.M.W. Turner, The Grand Canal, Venice

Then I think that I should read something completely different from my usual picks: a history of Venice in the late eighteenth century, the assembly of the human genome, a biography of the person who invented the smartphone. But I have to confess that facts without beauty or imagination bore me.

No, I can’t decide what book to take out anymore, because every story seems to be about disappointment, so I magnetize toward the volumes by authors whom I’ve heard read in person or have met, knowing their personalities well enough to be sure they won’t betray my hope that the book will offer some bits of topaz, some involuntary chuckles, some ecstasy or indignation to lift me above my cubicle and monitor. But the authors I know, I’ve counted on them too often, and even their books become a disappointment, since their minor works and juvenilia are never up to their masterpieces, the books where I follow the characters in their bustles and redingotes and shakos, reassured that letters can paint as well as nineteenth century artists carrying beechwood boxes full of little tubes of mortared pigments blended with linseed oil and white spirits. 

What book, what book? Or maybe I just have to bear down and think of something to write about, something as mundane and ridiculous as what reading matter to choose in the library.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Friday, February 8, 2013

How to Deliver Your Message, Part 4: Coming out of Nowhere

      One way to convey your theme to readers is not to lead up to it, as in The Big Moment, but to surprise the reader. At least, not to lead up to the message in an obvious way, but in a subliminal way. The surprise sneaks in and then leaps out in the final lines or sentences of a poem or story or essay.
A writer can spend most of a poem or essay or story describing one thing, and that thing can be only distantly or obliquely related to the theme. Then at the very end, BOOM! The writer suddenly says what he or she wants to communicate, but in such a way that it doesn’t feel predictable or heavy-handed.
One famous example of this is Rainer Maria Rilke’s great poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” I’ve translated and written about this poem in another blog, but the ending is worth mentioning again in this context. The poem seems to be a description of an ancient and broken statue. Pretty boring, right? Except that Rilke makes that statue emanate light and sensuality by comparing it to a glowing lamp and to a wild animal’s pelt, among other things. He also uses a tightly constructed sonnet to call attention to the poem itself, rather than where it is heading. Then in the poem’s last five words (in the German original), he clobbers the reader with a message so didactic, so strong, that it is unforgettable. He gets away with this sententiousness by catching the reader unawares, only leading up to the end in the reader’s unconscious, never showing that the poem is headed in that direction.
Another great example of this strategy is one of my favorite poems, Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods.” You might want to read the poem first, so I don’t spoil the ending. Emily Dickinson once said, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."

                                                                     Emily Dickinson

Mary Oliver's "In Blackwater Woods" never fails to blow the top of my head off.
But “In Blackwater Woods”actually starts out as though it’s only going to be just a nature poem about the beauty of fall foliage:

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,

How trite can you get? Except that Oliver starts with the imperative, “Look,” giving us a clue right from the start that something is going on in this poem that requires our rapt attention. And surprisingly, the trees not only have bodies of light, they are redolent of cinnamon and “fulfillment.” Already the poem is subtly conveying that something is undulating beneath the surface of this landscape:

and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.

Notice the peculiar repetition and setting apart of the word “is,” strangely unliterary, prefiguring the diction of the poem’s last two lines. But why are the ponds nameless? I don’t really know, but I’m guessing it’s because they are so sublime in their own right that they are beyond any name that humans place on a signpost or a map.
Then Oliver kicks it into gear: “Every year/everything/I have ever learned…leads back to this”. So now we know we are in the realm of revelation, and what we are about to learn transcends the everyday.
Her reference to “the black river of loss” suggests Lethe, the river in Greek mythology that the dead must cross to the Underworld, the river that erases all memory. But instead of the other side being the kingdom of the dead, in Oliver’s personal myth the other bank of the river is “salvation.” Salvation is a familiar idea in this Christian culture, but Oliver’s idea of salvation is one with a meaning “none of us will ever know.” These are powerful and absolute statements by Oliver, but they are so unexpected, and so different from the usual homilies about being saved, that they arrest us. We realize this is not going to be any kind of sermon we’ve ever heard.
Then Mary Oliver delivers the final pronouncement, again addressing the reader directly, as she did in the poem’s first word: “To live in this world//you must be able/to do three things...” Why is she speaking so directly to us, and what are those three things she’s talking about? We immediately want to know. It turns out they are actually very down-to-earth, and so desperately and beautifully and simply expressed:

to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it…

Then the final imperative, with its oddly repetitious phrasing:

and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Those lines are a kind of “letting go” on the poet’s part as well. She is no longer adorning her poem in literary devices and sparkling originality. Mary Oliver just lays it on the line. And she does, she does.
Other recent posts about writing topics:
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Saturday, February 2, 2013

How to Deliver Your Message, Part 3: Creating an "Aha!" Moment for the Reader

One method of delivering a message in a work of literature that I find satisfying and effective as a reader is when the writer gives me just barely enough information to figure out the puzzle on my own. That solving in my mind is the “Aha!” moment. And the closer it comes to the ending, the better it works for me. If I don’t get it till the very last word, so much the better.
For the writer, it’s a bit like writing a murder mystery. In a mystery, you want to plant little clues for the reader, but unobtrusively, so you don’t tip your cards. You want the readers to enjoy the guessing game, to want to solve the mystery, but you don’t want the readers to guess who the murderer is before you reveal it. Once the secret is out, you want the readers to think, “Of course! That’s so obvious.” But it shouldn’t be so obvious that the readers know on page 10 what you reveal to them on page 210.
But in a way, creating an “Aha!” moment for the reader is like writing a mystery where you rip out the last chapter. The reader becomes the detective and solves the crime. There shouldn’t be a moment like the one in the classic mystery where Inspector Burley-Hyde confronts the murderer in an English country house where he has gathered all the suspects in the well-appointed parlor with its lace doilies and concealed revolver. For the kind of “Aha!” moment I’m thinking of, all the suspects should be under one roof, but the reader should be the one to finger the murderer.
That may sound fairly abstract, so I'll give an example of a short poem by Tess Gallagher that creates an “Aha!” moment for the reader.

                                                                Tess Gallagher

Here’s a link to Gallagher’s powerful poem, “Each Bird Walking.” Please read this marvelous poem before taking in the rest of this blog, so I don’t spoil the surprise of the poem for you. Gallagher’s poem is a mystery from the start, with its oddly convoluted phrasing:

Not while, but long after he had told me

This phrasing becomes more poetic and feels more necessary, though, each time you read the poem.
The poem starts with a lengthy and almost utilitarian description of a man washing the body of his frail and elderly mother, shortly before her death. The description is fascinating, and so wonderfully paced that it imitates the patience and care of the man who is washing:

…the rag
dripping a little onto the sheet as he
turned from the bedside to the nightstand
and back…

Notice how the enjambments mimic or enact the actions of the man going back and forth from the mother’s body to the washbasin with the damp cloth.
But why this meticulous description that takes up most of the poem? That question itself becomes the mystery. We get a clue in the stanza that begins “as though he were a mother,” where the man who must be unnamed is transformed into a mother by the act of washing his own elderly mother, an act that is loving without being sexual. We get closer to the heart of the mystery in the next stanza:

And because he told me her death was
important to his being with her,
I could love him another way.

But even in helping to clear up the mystery, Tess Gallagher is creating more mysteries with the phrase, “I could love him another way.” What does that refer to? It’s like a murder mystery where a second victim hits the ground before our detective can even begin to figure out the first crime. And then Gallagher adds that haunting and incredibly simple phrase from the mother:

“That’s good,” she said,
“that’s enough.”

It seems as though the labyrinthine mystery of this poem could continue a long time before arriving at an explanation, but the whole story careens to an end in the last ten lines. We find out the speaker of the poem was the lover of the man who washed his mother. We find out that he ended their affair “so as not to hurt/the one closer to you”, i.e., his wife or partner. And finally, we find out that the speaker asked for a parting memory that would allow her to remember the man with love despite his hurting her, and that’s when he told the story about washing his mother. Gallagher concludes by echoing the quote from the mother that she had given us just ten lines earlier, but now in such a different context—or is it so different?
It’s a breathtaking ending. It breaks my heart every time I read it. The culmination works so well because Tess Gallagher takes us right up to the edge of the cliff, shows us where to look, but never says, “See, that’s the Grand Canyon.” In this case, the Grand Canyon is—what? I’m not entirely sure.
Maybe the title gives us another clue. Birds fly beautifully, but they only walk very awkwardly, the poet has explained in an essay about this poem. So when we attempt to love without sex, in a spiritual way, we are like birds wobbling on the ground, moving forward, but clumsily, and yet that is part of the hard work of being human. But if Gallagher had come out and flatly said all that at the finale of her poem, it would have been a terrible ending.
Yes, “Each Bird Walking” has a message, it has deep emotion, it has a beginning and a middle and an end (though definitely not in that order!), but the final “Aha!” is in the reader’s thoughts after taking in the poem, the way a chord lingers in the air at the end of a solo piano concert.

Other recent posts about writing topics:
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer