Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

This Christmas, Buy Poetry

I usually don’t like to hawk my own books, but with the Christmas shopping season in full swing, it seems like a good time to promote books in general (for mine, see below). And what better kind of book to buy than a good book of poetry?

They say good things come in small packages: you get a lot of good things in a collection of poems. And because each poem is usually a page or two long, readers can digest a book of poems a few at a time. A poetry book is perfect for commuters or travelers or anyone with a busy schedule or who needs something to read after they put their phone, tablet, or computer away before they go to sleep (more and more studies say you should do this, so you need good books to make the transition). Poetry books generally aren’t as expensive as novels or short story collections, so you can give two or three — or you can add a book of poems to make an ordinary gift like a  scarf or sweater seem extraordinary.

Now, I know some people’s reaction will be that no one reads poetry or no one understands it, but that doesn’t have to be the case. First, if everyone bought a book of poetry for Christmas, then much more poetry would be read! (Okay, I know, that’s wishful thinking…) But not all poetry is opaque and impossible to understand. Some is, and some people love that, but many poets also write perfectly accessible poems that engage with current events or universal issues anyone can relate to. You just have to look around and find the book that will speak to the person on your gift list (or put some poetry on your own wish list, so someone might get it for you).

How to find good poetry?

Over at Poetry Southwe’ve started a book list of new and notable books, mostly by Southern poets. You can also read many of our issues online to find poets who might be of interest, or you could order a gift subscription for Issue 9, which will be out in time for Christmas. You can also click on the title to go to our LibraryThing bookshelf of poetry. Goodreads recently released their reader’s poll of top poetry in 2017. Small Press Distribution listed their best-selling poetry titles in November, and Entropy Magazine came out with their list. And browsing in a good bookstore can give you ideas.

If you’re still looking for suggestions, here is what I have available:

9781680030655 For the art lover, the environmentalist, or anyone interested in the Mississippi Gulf Coast or mental illness, Barrier Island Suitechronicles the life of painter and potter Walter Inglis Anderson of Ocean Springs, Mississippi. As a young man, he studied art, then suffered mental breakdowns (possibly as a result of malaria or undulant fever) and was institutionalized. Later he would become a successful yet reclusive artist, working at the family pottery and sailing out to the barrier island for weeks at a time to draw and paint. The poems in this collection are inspired by his Horn Island Logs as well as the biographies Fortune’s Favorite Child and Approaching the Magic Hour.

dunkelberg front cover smThe poems in Time Capsules are more autobiographical, though some poems or details are invented. Poems set in the present deal with marriage, family, setting down roots, and growing accustomed to Mississippi. Poems of the past deal with growing up in small-town Iowa in the 60s and 70s. Themes of travel and nature run through all of my poetry and are prevalent in Time Capsules as well. Trees, birds, and wildflowers are recurring symbols. The book’s four sections are loosely organized around the cycle of the seasons, beginning in winter with “The Land of the Dead” and ending in late fall with “Requiem.”

L&Acover

My first collection, Landscapes and Architectures is out of print, but I do have some copies available. Contact me if you’d like one or if you’d like a complete set of my three books! Landscapes and Architectures deals with the displacement of youth, modern culture (including some technology that now feels dated), love, nature, and finding one’s way in the world. The landscapes and cityscapes of the midwest, where I grew up, feature prominently in early poems set in Osage, Iowa, and Galesburg and Chicago, Illinois. Later poems take place in the wide open spaces and exotic landscape around Austin, Texas.

HRNcoverFor those who are interested in translation, surrealism, or mystical poetry, my translations of the Belgian poet, Paul Snoek, in Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus may make a good stocking stuffer. This collection of three of his books from the 1960s is a small format pocket book. One of Belgium’s most prominent post-war poets writing in Flemish, Paul Snoek was active from the 1950s until his tragic death in in a single-car accident in 1981. Recently, I’ve been reworking some of my translations of his last two books and am thinking again about finding a publisher for more of his poems.

Untitled-2.indd

Last but not least, for the writer on your list, you might choose to buy a book about writing poetry (and fiction, nonfiction, and drama). My textbook, A Writer’s Craft, was published this year. Though it’s geared towards an introductory creative writing class, it was also written to be accessible for individual writers who want instruction and inspiration on the basics of the four main genres of creative writing. Each chapter ends with writing exercises to provide inspiration and more are available on the companion website and on its GoodReads community.

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!

Concrete Poetry

I always have a little fear and trepidation introducing concrete poetry to a class of creative writers, as I did today. On the one hand, I’m afraid I may get a lot of texts written in a shape that don’t have much poetry to them; on the other hand, I am convinced that the visual side of poetry is at least worth considering. Concrete poetry can lead to abuse or innovation, in other words, so it helps to show some examples.

What I like about concrete poems is that they can develop their own, visual sense of grammar. There is a syntax to the spatial arrangement of words on the page that works counter to sentence syntax. Indeed, often there is no sentence and the ‘words’ may not even be pronounceable. I like getting students to think outside the box and to think of poems as something other than prose. But I don’t like to give the idea that concrete poetry is static.

Far from it. The best concrete poetry challenges our linguistic norms, including challenging our habit of making language sense from left to right and top to bottom. So I show them a poem written in different lines that curve and bend in different directions, even one circular line. There is no logical place to begin the poem. If you start with one sentence and end with another, you might get a completely different sense of the poem than if you did it the other way around, or another way. There are multiple readings of the same text, depending on your entry point.

Writing a poem like this may take more technical prowess with typography than your average undergraduate can muster, but being exposed to the poem (and to other concrete poems) might allow them to think of poetry as not being (completely) linear. If they begin to look for connections around and within a poem, and not just in the straight line of prose, then they may pay more attention to other ways of creating meaning in a poem. Some of those may be more visual than auditory.

How to Drive Traffic to Your Blog: Be Useful

I keep marveling at how much my blog’s traffic has increased in the past year and thinking about the posts that made this happen. On the surface, the best advice I might give for driving more traffic to your blog could be: write about technology. My techie posts, which weren’t part of the original concept for the blog, have garnered far more hits than my poetry or teaching posts. But I don’t think that writing about tech is the only solution. Some of my food posts have been fairly popular, and there’s even a post where I was trying to define Nonfiction that regularly gets a hit — welcome students from Full Sail University (wherever you are) who must be assigned to find a page like mine. I see you in my stats now and then.

No, rather than taking the easy solution, to write about tech issues, I want to suggest that you write about whatever is on your mind, but make it useful. That said, I know it’s hard to predict what will be useful for others. So my rule of thumb has become to write about things that are useful to me. Then if others think so, too, I may have a hit, and if not, at least I can use it.

Case in point: when I was having problems with my DSL modem last year, I started a series of posts chronicling my problems and eventual solution. I tried to be very detailed about what my symptoms were and how I fixed them. I described every step as accurately as I could remember (without giving away personal details). I did this at the time, so I wouldn’t forget what I’d done if I ever had the problem again. People (and then search engines) started to notice. It was a rant, and that felt good, but it was a useful rant because it also provided information, and I’m convinced that’s what drove the traffic to my site.

I’ve done the same with a rare blood disease that our dog came down with a year ago. I recounted what I had learned about it, but I also recounted the experience of caring for and ultimately losing our beloved pet. I don’t think it’s the emotional content that draws viewers, but instead they want to know what someone else has experienced and what they might expect. I don’t know that our experience will be similar to theirs — and I sincerely hope theirs will be one of the cases where the dog responds to treatment and goes into remission — but knowing our experience must be useful.

Of course, I’ll continue to write about poetry, teaching, cooking, and the occasional odd-ball topic like the Motorette my mother eventually sold (thanks to someone who found out about it on my blog). You can’t always predict what will be of use to others, after all. So don’t let this advice stop you from writing about your passion even if that seems like the most useless topic in the world. As long as you approach it with the goal in mind to make it useful, at least to yourself, then my bet is there will be others who find it useful, too, and they will find you.

In Memoriam, David Hernandez, Chi-Town Poet

Yesterday, I learned that David Hernandez had passed away of a heart attack at the age of 66. He died in his beloved city, Chicago, on Feb. 25, 2013. (By the way, there is another David Hernandez, a poet from California, who is very much alive.)

Reading this news two months after the fact brought back vivid memories of another stage of my life, when I was fortunate enough to know David and be influenced by this fabulous poet and teacher. As I read articles about his life that included lines from his poems, his distinctive voice came back to me as well. David read his poetry with a musical lilt, even when he wasn’t performing with his band Street Sounds. When he was with the band, then the full sense of the Latin rhythms came through, but even without the band, you could hear the echoes of the music in his lines. Poetry Poetry has audio clips of several of his poems available online, including one of my all-time favorites “Why I Want to be a Real Poet.” But it’s hard to pick a favorite David Hernandez poem: every poem is a hardened gem.

Hernandez has been described as a street poet, as Chicago’s unnofficial poet-laureate (he wrote innaugural poems for Mayor Harold Washington), and Chicago’s first Latino poet (he began publishing in 1971). But I didn’t know any of those things when I met David in 1986. He was well into his second decade as a published poet, but apart from his fabulous poems, you’d never guess it to look at him or to interact with him.

I was just a kid, fresh out of college, trying to make a living in my first job at Chicago Review Press, and my good friend and college professor, Robin Metz, was running Knox Colleges’ Urban Studies program in Chicago for a semester. He enlisted me to help out with their poetry workshop. David was the real poet, I manned the coffee pot and  sat in on the informal discussions. I was probably full of myself and gave too much ‘advice.’ David was always encouraging, gently prodding or exploring a poem, but mostly encouraging the other poets to explore their creativity. You see, he never treated us like students; he always treated us like artists. He could be demanding about art, but you never felt judged or looked down upon. He led by example, and his example was absolute honesty. There was no room for pretentiousness in the little church basement where we met each Saturday. He never had to lay down the law or tell us to be humble: you just knew. In part because, though he never claimed to be a great poet and even wrote ironic poems about wanting to be a ‘real poet,’ we could sense we were in the presence of a real poet.

I learned more about life and about poetry in those Saturday mornings with David than I would in many other classrooms, so I was sad when the Knox students packed up their bags and went back to campus. But I didn’t need to be. David was still around, and I’d bump into him at the Green Mill Lounge, where I’d started going to the Poetry Slams. And David never forgot who you were and never acted like he didn’t know you because he didn’t have to know you anymore. Each time you saw David, it was like no time had passed. We remained friends throughout the time I lived in Chicago, and he remains one of my absolute favorite poet friends from those days.

The Art of Writing

It is the beginning of a new semester, and today I taught the first session of MUW’s introductory multi-genre Creative Writing class. As usual, as I walked the dog and gathered my thoughts before class, my thoughts turned to what we can teach about writing. It occurred to me, that in creative writing classes, we often gravitate to discussing what works (and what doesn’t). Sure, we want to move a an audience, but we often gravitate to the lowest common denominator, to the pragmatic approach. So one of my resolutions for the semester is to remind my students that writing is an art.

In class, we were discussing our goals. It was a good place to lay the groundwork by reminding students that in a creative writing class we focus more on the artistic side of what is said. When we write an essay, we care about communicating the ideas or making an argument. Those things matter in creative writing, too, but we focus more on the sound of the words or the patterns of a sentence. We have the luxury of writing something because we think it’s beautiful. (An essay written in rhyme might be unique, but I would still grade it primarily on the ideas, not the rhyme scheme.)

My goal in in this is to encourage students to move beyond the pragmatic and think about the beautiful. Of course, they don’t have to be opposites. Voltaire, in describing his utopia of Eldorado, praises it for making the practical beautiful. If I can begin to instill in some of my students a love of language and an attention to its subtleties, then I will be happy.

As I reached the farthest end of a cold gray walk along the river, which was already nearing flood stage, and as the dog and I turned around to come home, the looming clouds unleashed a steady rain that didn’t stop all day. Yet despite the cold and rain, the river retained its beauty and showed off its power.

Mystery and Mayhem

There’s plenty of mystery in this year’s Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium keynote novel, The Widow and the Tree, and there is crime, both contemplated and perpetrated, though I wouldn’t classify the novel as a mystery exactly. It blends some elements of that genre, along with the gothic modern fairy tale that Welty uses in her Robber Bridegroom. Both books serve as the inspiration for our theme this year, and consequently, we have a few mysteries in the group.

Carolyn Haines’ Bonefire of the Vanities may have the greatest claim to that fame, coming as the 12th in the Sarah Booth Delaney mystery series. Her intrepid detective is aided and abbetted by her sidekick and two dogs, as well as a relatively friendly ghost. Together they solve mysteries in the Mississippi Delta, bones of all kinds providing the common theme. Carolyn Haines will read on Friday 10/19 at 1:30 p.m.
Olympia Vernon also explores crime in her novel, A Killing in This Town, though the tone is a bit more sober, as she delves into the motives and the ramifications of a fictional civil-rights era slaying in rural Mississippi.

Finally, Michael Kardos brings his debut novel to the symposium. The Three-Day Affair has been called a mystery thriller involving a somewhat unintentional kidnapping and the college buddies who have to weigh their allegiance to each other against their conscience and better judgement. Both Michael Kardos and Olympia Vernon read on Saturday 10/20 from about 10:30-12:00.