Book Review: When you Learn the Alphabet by Kendra Allen

When You Learn the AlphabetWhen You Learn the Alphabet by Kendra Allen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kendra Allen’s essay collection When You Learn the Alphabet is an important collection of essays on race in America. Allen writes in several forms, ranging from memoir, to lyric essay, to poetry. What I admire most about these essays is Allen’s willingness to examine her own humanity rather than analyzing society from an objective distance. In the essay “Polar Bear Express,”the narrator reveals that she lies to an old man on the bus to avoid a conversation and later regrets the missed opportunity. I’ve ridden Chicago busses and ignored this kind of conversation, so I can relate and find the honesty refreshing. Allen is often angry at the systematic injustices and microagressions (or just plain aggression) she witnesses in society, yet she also examines the roots of her anger, both in facing ever-present racism and in growing up in a family plagued by addiction (Aunt A), divorce, violence, and PTSD. There are no easy answers, and though I sometimes might disagree, Allen’s essays are always challenging and engaging. For instance, after reading her essay about a creative writing workshop, I would love to rshow Allen Anna Leahy’s Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project and question the instructor’s practice of reading student work aloud to the class. But I am also moved by Allen’s account of her reaction to hearing her white male instructor read the n-word aloud, rather than having her black male classmate read his own piece. Whether I ultimately agree about the politics of who can read this word, I gain by learning how Allen and her classmate experience this situation. The fact Allen exposes her own vulnerabilities allows this kind dialogue between narrator and reader and shows a level of maturity that is rare in a first collection.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Biloxi by Mary Miller

BiloxiBiloxi by Mary Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: Mary Miller is my colleague in The W’s MFA program in Creative Writing. I’m a big fan of her work.

Biloxi is a hilarious read, though it’s not laugh-out-lout funny, outlandish, or bawdy. Mary Miller’s humor, to my mind, consists more of taking wry, sardonic pot shots at contemporary culture in a loving, even complicit way. Her novel is not driven by plot; instead it presents a complex character study. Louis McDonald, Jr., her rather clueless yet lovable main character, navigates a personal crisis after his divorce, and the point is not how well he succeeds or even how he learns or grows (though arguably, he does). The point is that we understand him and explore his world, a world Miller knows intimately, from its burger joints to its sad strip malls, beaches, and casinos. Or maybe the true main character is Layla, the dog, and we are like her, lapping up every tasty morsel, every slice of bologna Mary Miller tosses on the kitchen floor for us, occasionally nipping at a brother-in-law or running off only to return to our new home after awhile to see what other leftovers may be lying around. This novel is introspective and insightful, though it doesn’t offer easy answers as much as it offers a mirror onto the 21st-century, mid-American consumer culture we all inhabit, like it or not.

View all my reviews

 

Word Processors for Poets

Today’s my birthday, so my gift to you is a recommendation of free software.

Poets get a bum rap for never having money (it’s true!), but that’s not why I’m recommending two free word processors today. And it’s not because poets are so anti-establishment we have to fight against Microsoft’s domination with alternatives to MS Word, though that may be a noble cause.

Even Apple with Pages (free with your Mac, so not exactly free) might be worth fighting against on those terms, but I don’t mind it as much as Word. Pages doesn’t do the things that bother me most about MS Word, so it might be a good alternative if you already own a Mac, but for the rest of the world (PC or even Linux users), there are a couple of great free options to Word. (Sorry Google, I’m not thinking about Docs!)

First, what’s so annoying about Word, especially for poets? I’ve always struggled with its default settings, which are geared to an office environment. For one, I always have to instruct my poetry students how to force Word to single-space their poems. They set it to single space, but Word thinks every new line is a new paragraph and every new paragraph needs to have extra space between it and the previous one. Can we spell business letter, anyone?

(There’s an easy trick to fix that, actually: edit your default document template to set your default font and paragraph spacing options. It will affect every new file, but most of us don’t mind. Or create a poem template that has your settings for poetry, so you can keep your business letter template as default, if you must.)

The other annoying habit of Word isn’t quite so easy to fix. Word likes to have a capital letter at the beginning of every new line. It apparently thinks it’s a new sentence as well as a new paragraph, so in order to turn this feature off, you have to turn off capitalization at the beginning of a sentence. But then all sentences are affected, not just the ones at the beginnings of lines that aren’t really the beginning of sentences.

So the quicker, easier, and perhaps more gratifying solution is to switch to OpenOffice or LibreOffice. Both are free, open source office suites that are perfectly stable and secure. They do everything Word does, but the don’t treat poets like business execs (or their assistants). You don’t have to do anything to get them to work the way you want. They work well for poets right out of the box!

Both also include a database program, which might be more useful for keeping track of submissions than Excel. I’m currently working on that, and if I get it to work, I’ll post about it later. They both also have spreadsheet applications and other common office suite apps.

From what I’ve read, OpenOffice and LibreOffice are virtually identical, though if you want to save your files in Word format, then LibreOffice is the way to go. Both will open files in and save to a number of different formats that Word can see, and OpenOffice can save to a .doc file, just not .docx (which many people hate), so if you want to look like you’re using the latest Word when you exchange files, then LibreOffice is probably the way to go. Otherwise, choose the one whose icon or interface you like best or flip a coin. You can’t go wrong with either word processor, and you will be thankful for the reduced number of headaches they cause you, esp. if you write poetry!

Or you can do like a lot of Instagram poets I’ve seen recently: buy an old typewriter, type your poems, take a picture (typos and all), and post it online!

Book Review: Heavy by Kiese Laymon

Heavy: An American MemoirHeavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kiese Laymon’s memoir is an important book for our time and a great read! It is immediately more personal than many since he addresses each chapter to his mother. Understanding that relationship is the lens through which Laymon examines race, gender, sexuality, and abuse in his own life and through his experiences in Mississippi and across the nation. It is a story of growth and maturity, in which Laymon does not shy away from his own complicity in oppressive social structures. As a young man, he commits petty crimes and witnesses gang rape. He also recounts his own experience of sexual abuse as well as ‘discipline’ that might now be considered child abuse, but was accepted at the time. Yet Laymon’s goal seems to be to understand the deep sources of this abuse and how these experiences have shaped him and those around him. He also does not shy away from the troubles in his own relationships or his issues with gambling. For all the difficult subject matter Laymon takes on, this remains a memoir steeped in the optimism of “black abundance,” and it speaks to all Americans, regardless of gender or race. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

View all my reviews

 

How to Prepare to Apply for an MFA Program, Part 2

So you’ve been writing, revising, reading magazines and books (as I suggested in Part 1 of this series), and you feel like you’re ready to start the application process. How can you navigate the difficult journey to an MFA? Fortunately, there are a lot of resources that can help you choose a program and figure out how to write the best application possible.

First, how do you know when you’re really ready to apply? Sometimes you just have to take that plunge, but it can help to do some relection before you start the process. My low-residency MFA progam has a Guide for Applicants that can help you make that decision and help you navigate the process, and we hope it’s helpful for any program, not just ours. I’ve also written extensively on this blog about the application process. See the category MFA Application for posts like 15 Things to Do Before a Low-Res MFA that can help you prepare.

AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs also has a series of articles about the MFA application process that can be very helpful in thinking about the process and deciding whether you’re ready to take the plunge. Poets & Writers also publishes an annual MFA issue in Sept./Oct. that can be very informative with articles about the MFA experience and advice on choosing a program.

Another free resource that I highly recommend is Kenzie Allen’s 10-day course at Literistic, “MFA Applications 101.” This series of ten emails will walk you through the application process and provide many links to more resources than I can cover here. If you’re starting the application process or even just thinking about it, you owe it to yourself to sign up. The more you know about the process, the better you’ll be able to do to write your letter and hone your writing sample.

Other great resources include the MFA Years blog and the MFA Draft Facebook group: a new group is started each year, so search for the group if my link doesn’t take you to the right one. You must request membership and show that you’re an applicant, not a program director like me.

Finding a program is a little more complicated. Of course, you want to apply to the best programs you can where you’ll be competitive, but you also want to bear in mind the cost, location, and the culture of the schools you’re looking at. The best places to start your search are the guides at AWP, Poets & Writers, New Pages, and Publisher’s Weekly. You can find out everything you need to know to get started from these sites, and they all list slightly different information, so checking more than one is worth the time. They also link to program websites, which makes it easier to dig down to find out more about the programs you’re most interested in.

The common advice you hear about writing programs is to choose based on the writers who teach in the program. There’s a certain amount of wisdom in that — it they write like you write, then you might have a better experience working with them. That’s if those writers are truly active in their programs and if they are good teachers as well as good writers. But many of the best teaching writers out there are not the most famous writers you’ve heard of. Yes, the reputation of your thesis director could make a difference, but the vast majority of writers will make their way based on their own merits, not on who they worked with in grad school.

Better advice that you hear is to contact students in the program to find out what it’s like. Ask about hidden fees and about the culture of the program. What’s it like to live in the town for a full residency program or how a low-residency program works: do you work with a mentor or take online classes? How do you exchange files? etc.

Another piece of advice for choosing programs that I don’t hear a lot about, but have been thinking about recently, is to read the program’s literary magazine. From the magazine, you’ll learn a lot about the esthetic of the graduate student editors. Sure, the contributors for the magazine won’t be from the program (or if they are, that would be a huge red flag), but students in the program have chosen every piece published, so you learn what kind of writing interests them.

There is no magic bullet for choosing the right program. That’s why you’ll want to apply to more than one program, and you shouldn’t stop researching once you’ve sent in your application. Keep exploring the choices you’ve made, try to make connections or visit campus, write the programs to ask questions or get in touch with current students, so that when you are faced with a decision, you’ll have a better sense of what you want to do.

How to Prepare to Apply to an MFA Program, Part 1

Okay, so you want to apply for an MFA in Creative Writing, but you don’t know whether you’re good enough or where to start. You want to brush up on your writing and you want to put together the best application you possibly can. But how? In this post, I’ll try to give you some advice and point you to some resources to help you develop your writing. Then we’ll look at resources to help with the application process.

First, write. If you are going to be in an MFA program, you will write like you’ve never written before, so why wait until after you’ve been accepted? Start by writing every day or every time you possibly can. Write new material, try new genres, test your boundaries.

Next, rewrite. Don’t be satisfied with that most recent good draft. If your best writing was done in college, you would probably write it better now. Nearly any piece of writing can be improved or polished. Go back and re-read your older work, esp. if you don’t have ideas for new work. Try to find new layers. Do more than just correct errors (though fix anything and everything you can so you have absolutely clean copy). Sometimes this revision leads you to your next good idea. Going to a workshop or being involved in a writer’s group can be helpful, so you get feedback from others. If you don’t have someone nearby who can help, try going to a workshop or conference.

Finally, read. As I’ve said before, every MFA applicant should read widely in literary magazines. You need to know what’s being written today by the writers you admire (or the ones you’ll only admire once you’ve read them). You need to see what other MFA applicants are reading and what their professors are reading and writing. If you know what programs you want to apply to, read their literary journals to see the editorial choices of their current and former students. Our low-residency MFA program publishes two journals Ponder Review and Poetry South.

Go to bookstores and libraries to find the books that are being written that you’d like to emulate. What genre or sub-genre do you think you want to write? What authors are being published in those areas? Buy some books and read them! Or check them out from the library. Find out who those authors’ agents are. Start learning about the publishing industry.

You will have a better writing sample and letter if you’ve prepared yourself for your MFA than if you rely solely on your own talent.

That’s enough for today! I’ll continue soon with some resources that can help you with the application process.

Meet Me at the Book Festival

IMG_0089One of the great developments for writers in recent years has been the inception of state-wide or regional book festivals across the country. Mississippi holds its @MSBookFest in August on the Capitol lawn, and I’ll be there next weekend, August 17, for the fifth year. My first time, I went as a volunteer. My second year, I went as a writer with Barrier Island Suite, and for the past three years, I’ve gone to represent The W with our magazines, writing programs, and the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium at an organization table. I don’t get to hear as many of the great readers that way, but I do get to meet a lot of people and talk about writing and publishing in our state.

The readings take place inside the capitol building in the air conditioning. Our tables are outside in the shade, so the heat is never too unbearable, though last year we got some rain! Here’s some of what I’ll be missing out on inside. Mary Miller will read from her novel Biloxi, Kiese Laymon will read from Heavy. They will both also be at the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium this fall, so I will get a chance to hear them in October. There are many other panels with luminaries liek Joyce Carol Oats and Ann Patchett, as well as writers you may not have heard of, but whose work will delight.

John Bateman and T. K. Lee will be outdoors with me on Author’s Alley, where small press writers can represent their own books, and there are bookstores, food tents, and live music. It’s a great way to end the summer and start off the school year (if, like me, you’ll be heading back to classes soon). And it’s free! The only things you’ll need money for are books and food. Come enjoy a lovely Saturday (here’s hoping for good weather again!) in Jackson, Mississippi. And if that’s too far for you to travel, find the book festival in your state! More and more, it seems like something states are doing, and that’s great news for books, reading, and culture!