Monday, December 19, 2022

Writing Fiction about Real Historical Characters: Interview with Wesley Brown

This post features an interview with fiction writer Wesley Brown about his latest book, a dynamic novella about the jazz musician Miles Davis. See the end of this blog for Wesley’s full bio.

Author Wesley Brown. Photo by Brian Cornelius

Question: Your new book, Blue in Green, takes place during one day in the life of Miles Davis and his wife, the dancer Frances Taylor. How did you pick that particular time frame for the setting?

Wesley Brown: I wanted to focus on the assault on Miles Davis by police in front of the New York nightclub Birdland on the evening of August 25, 1959. Limiting the action within that time frame was indicative of the compression of Miles’s approach to playing.


Q. The period of the novella, the late 1950s, was a sort of high point for jazz and popular culture in the USA, with such music greats as Miles, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Billie Holiday, and Lena Horne, who all make cameo appearances in your book; and dancers like Katherine Dunham, Fred Astaire, and Cyd Charisse, who also figure in Blue in Green. What about that period attracted you as a setting for the book?


WB: The late 1950s were a transitional moment in jazz. Miles had taken the modal expression within jazz as far as he could take and was about to move on to his next musical challenge. And this period ushered in the emergence of figures like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.

Q. When you have a work of fiction with a very tight timeframe, like this one, what types of moments lend themselves to adding some backstory? For example, there are some fascinating stories in your book about the life of Miles’ wife, Frances Taylor, who was a renowned dancer in her own right. How did you decide where to insert material that takes place earlier in time?

WB: Since the novella focuses on memory, I was interested in the events triggered by Miles’ beating, which were related to his beginnings and the pivotal experiences in his evolution as a musician. It is much the same for Frances. The difference is that she looks back on the trajectory of her artistry as a dancer that she gave up to be with Miles.


Q. What were the challenges of writing fiction about actual historical personages whose life stories are known to many readers?


WB: The challenges were not to focus on the facts of their careers that were well known or could be found in books, but to try and get in touch with their emotional lives which I could only discover through imagining them.

Q. One of my favorite passages occurs when we are inside the thoughts of Miles Davis while his band is playing the song, “If I Were a Bell.” How did you go about imagining what Miles Davis might have been experiencing while he was in the middle of playing a number?


WB: Of course, I couldn’t know what Miles was actually experiencing by playing, “If I Were a Bell.” So, I attempted to use the lyrics of the song as a way to imagine how he might experience them. 

Frances Taylor and Miles Davis

Q. The novella also deals with the complex relationship between Miles Davis and his wife, Frances Taylor. How did you approach that material, given that it shows a side of Miles that is sometimes extremely negative?

WB: I knew about Miles’s violence against Frances from interviews and books. But again, I tried to get underneath what they didn’t reveal by imagining the effects of his emotional and physical abuse had on both of them.


Q. There’s a curious section in the book where Miles Davis sees the film Some Like It Hot, and he reflects on gender, thinking that Tony Curtis in drag is a sexier woman than Marilyn Monroe in the film (some of us might beg to differ about that!). Is that section meant to tell us something about Miles, or was that Wesley Brown riffing?


WB: As the character of Miles says in that section, Monroe was a male fantasy of hyper, female sexuality that she enabled. I was riffing on that. But Miles was attracted to the androgyny of figures like Curtis and Elvis.  One need only look at his gravitation toward Prince.

Wesley Brown’s previously published novels are Darktown Strutters, Tragic Magic, and Push Comes to Shove. He also wrote the plays, Boogie Woogie and Booker T, and Life During Wartime. Brown coedited the multicultural anthologies Visions of America and Imagining America and edited The Teachers & Writers Guide to Frederick Douglass. With Thulani Davis, Toni Cade Bambara, and Amiri Baraka, Wesley Brown co-wrote the screenplay for W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography in Four Voices.

Zack’s memoir about his father, the writer Lee Rogow: Hugging My Father’s Ghost

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Other posts of interest:

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 Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Writing Tips from Italy: Guest blog by Giulio Mozzi and Laura Pugno

A friend gave me a copy of a wonderful manual for writers by the Italian authors Giulio Mozzi and Laura Pugno. Their book is full of great ideas and prompts.
Link to: Oracular Manual for Poets
Though the book is particularly for poets, I’ve translated three sections that I think are of interest to all writers. Grazie, Giulio and Laura for giving me permission to reprint these!
Co-author Laura Pugno

Co-author Giulio Mozzi
Do words have souls?

A poet considers every word and every thing as if it were alive. They might actually be alive. What do they want to say?  


A good poet is an animist who looks at things as if they were saturated with life, death, stories, and words. And in the same vein, a poet looks at every word they hear, read, say, or write as if it were a living being. Not only that: a good poet is a matchmaker who brings together words and things based on their affinities and preferences. To sum it up: a good poet is like that clever servant who pretends to do the bidding of things and words, but who in reality is the one in charge, the one who masters them, and bends them to meet a particular need in a piece of writing.


Who lives in your poems?


The “us,” that unknown. How many homes can you make in it that you’ve never even thought about? Collective poetry, choral poetry. There’s a whole world out there: the others.


With your own voice, unique and private, you, as a poet, are the founder of a community. But how is it possible that poetry, which is such a lyrical and solitary form of expression, can create a community? Well, each of us is a person who belongs to humanity, so in each of us there’s something shared or held in common with others, maybe with a few others, maybe with many, or maybe even with everyone else. When you speak as a poet, with that shared something, you’re speaking the ”us.” Even when you use the “I.” Even when it seems you’re speaking completely impersonally. As the philosopher Rocco Ronchi once said, “Communication…is not a form of transmission. At its root, communication means to create a common ground, to fasten together a community, even if it is a minority, and to give that community identity and recognizable traits. Communication is the creation of a sense of community.” Poetry does not communicate by transmission, it fosters commonality, founds a community. To quote the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska: “[Jean-Paul] Sartre said one of the most horrific things ever uttered: ‘Hell is other people.’ («L’enfer, c’est les autres) What does that even mean, that hell is other people? In fact, I would say that other people are the true paradise. Doesn’t ‘other people’ include loved ones, neighbors—not just anybody? And I’m not only referring to lovers here, but also to relations, friends, the care of a neighbor, etc. Where would we be without others? Who would we be? Nothing. A hell.”


Rearrange the poetry books on your shelves.


Discover the books you forgot you had.


When you’re a new employee in a bookstore, the first day on the job you’re taught that you have to dust the books. Every day, when there aren’t many customers in the shop, you run a cloth over one, two, or three shelves and give them a good swipe. Romano Montroni, the founder of Italy’s Feltrinelli Bookstore chain, explained why, in his book Selling Souls: The Bookseller’s Profession. Montroni said that this is useful for memorizing each book, the author, the title, and a couple of sentences from the back cover. Similarly, if you have a few shelves of poetry books at home (and I certainly hope you do!), take the time every once in a while (maybe once a month?) to rearrange your books. You might reorganize them by author, or maybe chronologically, or by the colors of their spines, or by their size, or by when you bought them, or according to which ones you like the most or the least. This will help you (you’ll see, it works!) to find forgotten books, to resume interrupted readings, to read again passages you  haven’t looked at for ages, to discover that, just as you have changed over time, so have your books.


From Oracolo manuale per poete e poeti, @2020 by Giulio Mozzi and Laura Pugno, published by Sonzogno di Marsiglio Editori. Reprinted by permission of the authors. Translation from the Italian © 2022 by Zack Rogow.

Zack’s memoir about his father, the writer Lee Rogow: Hugging My Father’s Ghost

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Alison Luterman Guest Blog: How Long Does It Take to Finish a Work of Writing?

This is a guest post from poet, essayist, and playwright Alison Luterman

I was walking with a novelist friend in the woods the other day and she was telling me about how she’d had to tear apart the structure of her draft (which I’d read and loved), change the point-of-view of several characters, eliminate some extraneous material, and was now, basically, rewriting a very different book. I asked how she was feeling about it all.

 Oh, you know,” she shrugged. “At first I was pissed at my mentor for telling me my structure wasn’t working, and then when I accepted that she was right I was sad that I’d wasted so much time polishing that early draft, when I should not have been polishing it at all, I should have been restructuring it. Then I was overwhelmed with how much work I’d have to do to make this new draft work, and feeling doubtful if I could even pull it off. But now I’m into it, and one of the main characters is emerging as more twisted and interesting than he ever was before, and I’m enjoying getting to know him. This new book is going to have a very different tone than the draft you read. It’s going to be much darker. Actually, I'm loving working on it."

  I did know. My dear friend Leslie Absher just published her remarkable memoir Spy Daughter Queer Girl, a book she worked on for more than sixteen years. The layers of living and feeling and research and growth really show in the story. Sure, she didn’t think it would take that long when she embarked on this project, but she stayed with it and she stayed with herself and her own changes and the work shows the benefit of that patience and care and earned wisdom.

Alison Luterman

I’ve got students and writing clients who are concerned about this. They ask, How long does it take to get a book out? The answer, infuriating as it is, is “It takes as long as it takes.” Each of my books of poems has taken years longer than I thought it “should.” I always fondly imagine things are ready long before they are. I’ve sent out so many manuscripts to contests only to realize, five minutes after paying the thirty dollar entry fee and hitting Send, that it was really just a lump of raw dough rather than a fully baked loaf.

  On the other hand, sometimes lightning strikes and a poem comes out whole. The writer Ruth Stone contended that her poems came to her whole, like tornados on the horizon. She would sense one coming and run as fast as she could back to her house, in order to grab a pen and scribble it down. If she didn’t outrun the poem it would blow right past her.

  And Bob Dylan sometimes wrote three songs a day at the height of his powers. There was apparently a conversation between him and Leonard Cohen about writing. Cohen confessed it had taken him seven years and zillions of drafts to write “Hallelujah.” “How long did it take you to write ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’?” Cohen asked Dylan. “Ten minutes,” Dylan replied. So, there you have it!

Alison Luterman’s books include the poetry collections In the Time of Great Fires (Catamaran Press), Desire Zoo (Tia Chucha Press), The Largest Possible Life (Cleveland State University Press), See How We Almost Fly (Pearl Editions); and a collection of essays, Feral City (SheBooks). Luterman's plays include Saying Kaddish with My Sister, Hot Water, Glitter and Spew, Oasis, Touched; and the musicals The Chain (with composer Loren Linnard), The Shyest Witch (with composer Richard Jennings), and the song cycle We Are Not Afraid of the Dark (with composer Sheela Ramesh).

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s memoir about his father, the writer Lee Rogow: Hugging My Father’s Ghost

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Dealing with Rejection as a Writer

One thing you don’t always hear when you’re starting out as a writer is that your work is going to get rejected most of the time you send it out. I’ve seen a variety of statistics, but it seems that in general, literary journals accept between 1% and 2% of their submissions. A magazine such as The New Yorker accepts an even lower percentage: .14%. That means they reject 99.86% of the work sent to them. 

In fact, if the work I submit to literary magazines, publishers, and theaters is accepted even one tenth of the time, I feel as if I’m doing terrific. The reality is, there are many, many talented writers, and a much smaller number of outlets to publish in.  


On top of all that, rejection is never easy to take. We work hard on our literary creations, and we pour our hearts into them. For that reason, rejection often feels as if our very souls are being turned back from the gates of Heaven and banished to literary hell.


So, how to deal with rejection? Well, one lesson I try to take away from a negative response is that my work can always improve. After a rejection, I imagine I’m the editor who reviewed my work, and then…poof, I accept it!


No, actually, I imagine I’m the editor, and I attempt to see my writing more objectively. I think how I can make that submission better before I send it out again. I try to consider each rejection as an opportunity to rethink and to polish my writing. That doesn’t mean ripping up what I sent and throwing it out. It means I strive to raise my work closer to my aspirations for my highest potential as a writer.


Another takeaway from getting your work turned down is that not all rejections are completely negative. In some cases, an editor takes the time to say that they liked your work and they hope you’ll submit your writing to them again. Do not take that as a polite version of a flat “No.” That means an editor really did appreciate your work. Make sure your submissions spreadsheet has a place to note rejections of that sort, and periodically go back to those notes and send more work, maybe six months or a year later. In your new cover letter, thank the editor for encouraging you to resubmit, as a way to remind them that they liked your earlier submission. Do not resubmit the same work, however—that would be ignoring what the editor told you in the first place.


One of the reasons you send out your work is that you’re hoping to reach out beyond your solitary labors as a writer. As the poet André Breton once said, “Writing is the loneliest road that leads everywhere.”

André Breton: 
“Writing is the loneliest road that leads everywhere.”

While rejection may not be the kind of connection you were hoping for when you submitted your work, it still means you were brave enough to risk sending your work out into the world. That’s a victory. Someone also saw your writing, and weighed it in their mind and heart. That’s also a connection. Concider viewing your attempt as an achievement, rather than as a negative.


If a particular work of yours keeps getting rejected, try sending it to a different kind of magazine. Over a two year period, I sent out a poem I thought was very publishable to 50 magazines in the United States. It got rejected at all of them. You read that right: 50 rejections! The 51st journal I sent that poem to, with an editor based outside North America, emailed me to say, “Congratulations! We loved your poem and would like to publish it in our next issue.” Sometimes it makes sense to mix it up a little.


But given that rejection is the most likely outcome of a submission, make sure you really celebrate when your work is accepted. Savor that moment. Don’t boast, but don’t be too modest, either. When the publication is posted online or arrives in the mail, share that with your friends and on social media.


It’s rarely easy to get your work printed online or on paper. But publication is, after all, one of the great thrills of being a writer. Yes, rejection is not the fun part of a writer’s life, but it helps us to improve our work, and it reminds us to keep faith with our literary calling, even when that is painful.  

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Haiku in Africa: An Interview with Adjei Agyei-Baah

This blog features an interview with Ghanaian poet Adjei Agyei-Baah, one of the leading writers of “Afriku,” the school of haiku poetry flourishing in Africa. Agyei-Baah is the author of three volumes of haiku: his latest, Scaring Crow (Buttonhook Press); Afriku (Red Moon Press); and Ghana 21 Haiku (Mamba Africa Press). He is the cofounder of the Africa Haiku Network (AHN) and coedits Mamba Journal, Africa’s first haiku magazine.

Adjei Agyei-Baah

Could you talk a little bit about the history of haiku writing in Africa?

Haiku writing in Africa owes a lot to Sono Uchida, the prominent Japanese haiku poet and diplomat, who thirty years ago in Senegal initiated a haiku contest in the French language. That was the first international haiku competition in Africa.


During his mission as a Japanese ambassador in Africa, Uchida always felt that Senegal would be a fertile ground for the growth of haiku. The way the Senegalese people adapted to nature reminded him of the traditional world of the Japanese people, a way of life that was rapidly disappearing. According to Sono Uchida, it was the belief of haiku poets in Japan that nature does not belong to humanity, but rather it is humans who belong to nature.


Uchida’s promotion of haiku in Senegal was supported by the first President of Senegal, His Excellency Léopold Sédar Senghor, who was also a great friend of haiku.


In more recent years, haiku has spread particularly in West Africa, especially in Ghana and Nigeria. Some African haiku writers have pushed the genre in new directions. Emmanuel-Abdalmasih Samson of Nigeria, for example, invented what he termed “mirror haiku,” a technique now used by many other haiku writers around the world. Here’s an example from Samson’s poetry:


        walking in the rain

        umbrellas sing counterpoint

        August concerto


        August concerto

        umbrellas sing counterpoint

        walking in the rain


How did you personally come to haiku as a form for your poetry? Why does haiku particularly appeal to you as a writer?


I got to know haiku through my fellow Ghanaian countryman, Nana Fredua-Agyeman, a very strong haiku contender. He used to share haiku on his blog. I followed his adventures and became addicted to the genre. I was captivated by its feature of brevity and the way a short haiku also says much more. It seemed a good way to tell African stories.


Your new chapbook, Scaring Crow, has a remarkable form—every haiku mentions a scarecrow. What drew you to that image, and what associations does it have for you personally and as an artist?


It's a book I wrote purposely to try to push the frontiers of haiku. Arguably, it's the first haiku collection ever to explore a single theme in more than 100 ways. It was an honour and privilege to have great haiku scholars and doyens like Hiraoko Sato, Professor John Zheng, and Scott Mason contributing the foreword and blurbs.

Do you write in other forms besides haiku, or in free verse? If so, how do you know when a poem wants to be a haiku, and when it needs a different shape?


Yes, I began with longer poems before discovering haiku, and I’ve had several long poems published in international journals and anthologies. As part of my practice, I create a haiku when nature presents a moment in a flash of lightning, that delivers a lasting after-image. But when I want to address humanity, or talk about more scholarly topics, I usually write longer poems.


Any advice for writers who would like to write haiku?


Deep observation yields haiku! To communicate an aha! moment from nature, a novice writer must constantly observe. Read good haiku journals and publications to improve your craft. I hope to see more African poets, both young and experienced, come to the practice of haiku to tell African stories, as few are doing at the moment.


Here are some favorites of mine from Adjei Agyei-Baah’s new chapbook, Scaring Crow:


        All Saints’ Day

        a scarecrow glows

        in fireflies


        gleaning the field

        a hidden melon

        behind the scarecrow


        ripened field

        an old scarecrow invites

        birds to party


        flitting butterfly

        the scarecrow’s shoulder

        provides a rest


        country walk…

        passing on an old hat

        to a scarecrow


        parting mist…

        the open arms

        of a scarecrow

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies