Why I Support the Mississippi Arts Commission

This week we learned that there is a bill in the Mississippi Senate to close the Mississippi Arts Commission and consolidate it under the Mississippi Development Authority. The Arts Commission director was blind-sided by this news, and obviously there was no planning with the commission that led to the proposal. According to the Clarion Ledger, the reason given for the proposal is to increase efficiency.

If it were only a matter of sharing office space or supplies, that might make sense, but the proposal is to close down the commission and recreate it at the Development Authority. The current Commissioners would remain as an advisory board, but it is unclear what role they would play, nor is it clear whether any of the current staff would be brought over.

At best, this would mean a major disruption for arts funding in the state. At worst, the arts would be subsumed under other development issues, and arts funding would become more commercialized and more politicized.

The Mississippi Arts Commission is a fine example of a state organization that is fair and equitable in its processes and awards. The commission funds everything from individual artists to local arts organizations. They fund all kinds of art, from painting, to literature, to music, to folk arts, and more. They fund projects like the Artist Roster that brings artists to schools and community organizations around the state. They promote the arts within the state and around the country.

Full disclaimer: I have been the recipient of two grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission: a mini-grant in 2005 for $500 that helped me participate in two artist residencies, where I wrote the initial poems for what would become Barrier Island Suite and some of the concluding poems in Time Capsules, and an artist fellowship of $4500 this year, which has already helped me to travel the state to give readings and will help fund other professional development opportunities.

The fellowship is an excellent opportunity and an honor to receive. It has opened many doors for me as an artist. Yet, if you think about it, since I’ve been a writer living and working in Mississippi for more than 20 years, I’ve received on average, about $250 a year to support my work. Before the fellowship, that average was a lot less! I’m not complaining, only pointing out that the awards given to individual artists are seed money that help us to develop as artists and get the word about our art out to a much larger audience. No one is getting rich off of artist fellowships.

The bigger value of the Arts Commission is in the community it builds. As an award recipient, I feel a responsibility to that community. My work is not only my own, but is connected to something larger, and my goal is to help other artists achieve the same successes that I have.

I also see the value of the Arts Commission in my local community. It awards funds to the Columbus Arts Council (and others around the state), which in turn gives grants to local groups like the Suzuki Strings of Columbus. Community festivals receive Arts Commission funding as well, and state-wide festivals like the Mississippi Book Festival rely on funding as well. I have benefitted greatly from many of these organizations and events, both as an artist and as a consumer of art.

The Mississippi Arts Commission has a vast network of individual artists and arts organizations. They have a history of effectively working with these individuals and groups, and to close their doors and attempt to recreate it under new leadership seems foolhardy and rash. It could hardly be more efficient than the well-oiled machine that is the Mississippi Arts Commission. Mississippi has a vibrant arts community, and we owe a great debt of gratitude to the Commission for fostering it. The last thing we need to do is to try to reinvent this wheel.

20 Reasons to Write or Read a Poem (besides commemorating a life event or making a buck)

This is a follow-up to my last post, “Indeed, Why Poetry?” which was a response to Daniel Halpern’s essay, “A Few Questions for Poetry,” that began with the mother of all questions: “Why poetry?” I don’t mean to start an argument, but I thought I ought to offer a few more answers to that question and give a few examples. So here goes:

  1. Just for fun: consider the ludic forms like the limerick or light verse
  2. To poke fun at all the serious poets who worry that poetry is becoming extinct: read some Dada
  3. To get laid: if you can’t make a buck, write a sonnet
  4. To rant: sometimes poets just need to complain
  5. To struggle with your soul: try Dante, Petrarch, Milton to name a few
  6. To complain about not getting laid and then struggle with your soul: definitely Petrarch, maybe John Berryman, and about a million others
  7. To focus your mind: any meditative poetry (any poetry)
  8. To focus attention on something that usually goes unnoticed: haiku
  9. To explore language in new combinations and push meaning: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, Surrealists, among many others.
  10. To make a political point: see e. e. cummings, Amiri Baraka, Poets Against the Vietnam War, etc.
  11. To praise a person, idea, or object: odes or elegies
  12. To save the planet: eco-poetry
  13. To come to terms with a work of art: ekphrastic poetry
  14. To celebrate being alive
  15. To contemplate death
  16. To celebrate and explore your culture or identity
  17. For the challenge of saying exactly what you meant to say in as few words as possible
  18. For the discovery of saying what you never expected to say
  19. Because you’re tired of inane tweets
  20. Because you have a typewriter, fresh ribbon, paper, and time on your hands

Thanks for that last one to the guy in the coffee shop in Orange City, Iowa, who wrote me an impromptu poem one morning a couple of summers ago. I’m cheating a little with that, since he did make a buck or two tip out of that deal, but I suspect he did it less for the money than to while away the time and to rise to the challenge of composing a decent poem on the spur of the moment. He also ran a poetry series, though we couldn’t stay in town for that, and if I remember right, he was involved with a small literary magazine or two. Once poets get the bug, the main answer to the question “Why poetry?” often seems to be “Because poetry.”

The list above is hardly exhaustive, and I suspect there are many more reasons to write or read a poem: as many as there are moments in a day, days in a life, and different experiences that fill those moments. There’s nothing wrong with using a poem to commemorate an important life event or even with trying to earn a few dollars writing poems. My point has been that to describe poetry only in those terms is to limit it, and that commercial success is the wrong criterion to use to judge its worth. Poetry is like eating or breathing. Most people don’t earn a living doing either activity, yet we could not live without them.

Poetry is serious and poetry is frivolous. It can be both simultaneously, and it can be so many other things. It can be written for any of the reasons listed above and more, or for any combination of reasons. So I will end with Halpern’s question: “Why poetry?”

I’ve given twenty answers — what are yours?

Indeed, Why Poetry?

A Response to Daniel Halpern’s “A Few Questions for Poetry”

On Dec. 30, 2016, Halpern published a defense of poetry in the New York Times. As often seems to be the case with these kinds of defenses, he raises some valid points while making a few troubling claims, not the smallest of which is the stance that poetry needs defending.

Halpern’s evidence for this is that poetry books don’t sell, though of course they do, just not enough to make most collections commercially viable. That’s not to say that every book of poems loses money, just that the profits in publishing poetry are extremely modest. Breaking even on a book of poems is an accomplishment. I should know. 2016 is the first year in a very long time that I will have earned a royalty check on a book—both my 3rd and my 2nd collections earned enough to warrant a small check this year.

Yet writing poetry is about much more than turning a profit, and it might be argued the absence of commercial success is part of what makes poetry so valuable. It’s hard to accuse a poet of selling out to make a buck, after all. Poets write because they love the form or because they have something to say, not because they can make a living at it. In fact, there are many poets from all walks of life who write in a myriad of styles. There may be more poetry produced today than ever before. So far from being near extinction, poetry may be thriving now more than ever.

This fact was driven home to me this year, when I took over editorship (along with my MFA students) of Poetry South. We were amazed, not only by the number, but the quality of the submissions, and by the experience of the poets who sent to our small rag. Many were poets with multiple books, and most were previously unknown to us. Because of this, one goal for the magazine in 2017 is to publish a list of recent and notable books, mostly by Southern poets. We’ve started a bookshelf at LibraryThing that also shows up on our site.

Halpern is at his best when he argues that poetry is still important because it fights against extinction, though the danger is not that poetry itself will become extinct, but rather that careful, precise, musical, ludic, thoughtful use of language might go the way of the dodo without poetry to keep it alive. The act of writing or reading a poem exercises the mind in ways even the best prose can only approximate (which is not to say there is less value in prose, only that it’s different). Poems are made of patterns of sound and sense. They focus our attention or confound our senses. They can be profound or ludicrous, yet they always challenge.

So I beg to differ when Halpern appears to relegate poetry to the task of commemoration at a funeral, wedding, or other important moment in our lives. To be fair, he does acknowledge other roles for poetry, but keeps coming back to commemoration as his touchstone. The existence of sites like Poetry Daily is evidence that poetry is for more than commemorating the important moments. It is also for the everyday moments.

One of my students has started a poetry open mic series in our small Southern town that has proven quite popular and spilled over into the neighboring town as well. I remember the early days of the Poetry Slam in Chicago when there was a similar energy for poetry (and still is). Poetry is not only published in books, but it is found in coffee shops, bars, magazines, on buses, bulletin boards, or online. So book sales should not be the primary evidence of poetry’s current state of health. Look at who’s writing and reading and listening to poetry, and you’ll find that it’s doing all right.

But certainly there’s nothing wrong with a good defense of poetry such as Halpern’s. I would agree that poetry could use even more readers and listeners. However, if in defending it, you box poetry into a corner and relegate it to a limited role like commemoration, then there might be something wrong with the defense. Or if you make it out to be near extinction, that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I doubt either was Halpern’s intent, yet reading the defense made me wonder whether it is better to defend poetry or to celebrate it, to decry the lack of sales or to acknowledge the sheer number of practicing poets and readers of poetry, who clearly aren’t in it for the money.

Catch, Knox College Magazine

This week, I had a blast from the past, an email from Knox College asking about the times the undergraduate literary magazine, Catch, had won the CCLM national prize. The acronym is for the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, which around 1990 changed its name to CLMP —Council of Literary Magazines and Presses.

The three covers above are from 1985/86, the year I was the lead editor (with Patricia Bereck for the first issue). As I recall, we submitted the winter issue (middle one) for the prize. It was fun to go back to my back issues and see what we had published. And it brought back memories of working on my first magazine — appropriately, since this week, I sent the 8th issue of Poetry South (the first one produced by MUW).

We were not the first or the last. Sean Bronzell and Ann Suchomski won the award in 1983, and we think there was at least one more in the 1990s, and Knox has won AWP’s undergraduate prize, which took over the mantel of CLMP in recent years.

Back when Sean and Ann won, and when I did our first two issues in 1986, we were still working with photographic paper and wax, when cutting and pasting really meant what it says. For the Spring issue, we got to move to a computerize typesetting machine, which still used photo paper and wax, but you could see what you were typing and could edit on screen. That way we did most of our editing digitally and didn’t have to cut and paste nearly as much. We still worked on a light table to get the layout the way we wanted, but life was much easier. Nowadays, things have come a long way, and we don’t even use paper much, just pdf files created by InDesign, so everything is digital. But there’s still a lot that hasn’t changed — especially proofreading!

Busy Time

It’s been a very busy time in the past few weeks, which is one reason why I haven’t been posting much.

  • I finished revisions to my textbook A Writer’s Craft: multi-genre creative writing, adding a chapter, an appendix, glossary, and references, among other less major revisions.
  • Sent that to my publisher by my Nov. 30 deadline.
  • I have been editing, proofreading, and laying out 96 pages of Poetry South, which means I’ve had a chance to read some really fine poetry.
  • I nominated 5 of those poems for the Pushcart Prize.
  • I nominated 5 of our MFA students for the AWP Intro Journals Project contest
  • I’ve been sprucing up the websites for Poetry South and Ponder Review.
  • Not to mention the normal end-of-semester work, a little Christmas cheer, and a few things I’m probably forgetting (repressing) right now…

But the semester will be soon over (hard to imagine how), and I ought to get more time to reflect and write on this blog!

Revision: Taking My Own Advice

If you follow this blog, you may know that I’m publishing a creative writing textbook next year, titled A Writer’s Craft:Multi-Genre Creative Writing. The contract has been signed on both sides of the Atlantic, and this fall I’ve been working on revisions. Since I’ve taught with the notes that became this book for a few years, the manuscript has already been revised several times and is pretty clean. But the publisher wanted me to broaden the focus from my class to a more general audience, something I’d already been doing, so there were only a few places that still had to be changed and some exercises that had to be revised to work in other contexts. Since my publisher, Palgrave/MacMillan, is based in the UK, they also wanted me to try to address an international market.

These were all fairly straightforward revisions that a careful read-through and some tinkering with the language ought to address. I knew I also wanted to add a glossary and bibliography, and I had some introductory material for instructors and students and an appendix I wanted to include.

What I hadn’t anticipated was needing to follow my own advice on revision. I read through the book a chapter at a time, making my corrections and revisions, and everything was pretty much finished for that stage. Yet I had a nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right with the chapter on Creative Nonfiction.

My advice for revision includes rethinking what you’ve done and being willing to make major changes if necessary. It also involves looking at your work in terms of balance. Are any of the parts less developed than the others and should they be equally developed.

When I went back over the chapter on Creative Nonfiction, I realized it was significantly shorter than the other chapters on genre. I knew the reason for this, of course. Initially, my course in creative writing had included only poetry and fiction. Eventually, I added nonfiction and then drama. For awhile, I still gave more emphasis to fiction and poetry, but in recent years I’ve found ways to manage teaching all four genres equally. This is reflected in my syllabus and in the number of days I devote to each chapter.

A couple of years ago when I started thinking of the notes as a textbook, I had added a fair amount to the chapter on drama because there are so many technical aspects to the form. But Creative Nonfiction didn’t seem to have as many issues to cover, especially since it is the first genre we get to and we rely heavily on material that has already been covered in previous lessons, so it felt like there was less to say.

I knew all these reasons why there were fewer pages, yet it still felt like I was giving Creative Nonfiction short shrift, and I knew that wasn’t the case when I covered it in class. So I went back to my notes, and went over the chapter again. Ultimately, I decided to spend more time on each of the types of Creative Nonfiction, adding more detail on memoir and personal essay and whole new passages about the lyric essay, true crime, travel writing, and flash nonfiction. In the process, I had to develop new content, research more about forms of nonfiction, and rethink the strategy of the chapter. This also helped me bring out more of the content that often comes up in class discussion.

It was more work than anticipated, but I wasn’t ever sorry that I needed to do it. It made the book stronger, and inspired me to write another short chapter on other genres that serves as a conclusion to the book. Now I just have the appendix to finish and the glossary and bibliography to format. I should make my Nov. 30 deadline, and it looks like I’ll even come in just under the 70,000 word limit that my editor and I agreed on for the revised manuscript. More on that soon! And if I don’t post a lot on this blog in the next couple of weeks (as I haven’t the past few weeks), you’ll know why!

Book Review: Miss Jane by Brad Watson

Miss JaneMiss Jane by Brad Watson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s no wonder Watson’s latest novel was nominated for the National Book Award. Watson presents us with compelling characters whose lives explore contemporary issues in a setting of historical fiction. The title character, Jane is born in the early 20th century with a birth defect that leaves her incontinent and unable to have children or maintain normal social relations. We see her from the day she is born and follow her and her family into adulthood as they struggle with and adapt to the implications of her condition. She cannot stay in school, yet she is bright enough to be able to learn on her own how to read and do math. She is naturally curious about herself and about her sexuality, though she is unable to fully explore that side of her life. She is intensely aware of the fertile life on her Mississippi farm, and seems more in tune with life than many around her as she accepts the body she was born with.

Watson’s portrayal of the character based on his own great-aunt is warm and sympathetic, even as his understanding of the family dynamics and the struggles Jane’s parents and sister must go through. His portrayal of rural life in Mississippi in the 1920’s and 1930’s is spot-on and a significant part of the value of this book. The relationships of men and women who work on the farm, the struggles to eek out a living from the soil during hard times, and the bone-wearying life of a country doctor, perhaps Jane’s greatest and most lasting friend, serve as the perfect foil for her own struggles and add to the rich portrayal of Southern country life.

Miss Jane is not always an easy read, as it takes on difficult issues of gender and race, yet we are much the wiser for it.

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