Thursday, December 11, 2008

Edging out the "Competition"

"The other day, as I looked down on the field of cubicles from the 'resting area' on the balcony, I felt an urge to read aloud from a Graham Greene story I had disregarded in my 20s: 'Are you prepared for the years of effort, ‘the long defeat of doing nothing well’? As the years pass writing will not become any easier, the daily effort will grow harder to endure, those ‘powers of observation’ will become enfeebled; you will be judged, when you reach your 40s, by performance and not by promise.' Harsh stuff. But don’t take Greene’s word for it, or mine. I’m a writer. Maybe I’m just trying to clear a little more room for myself at the workspace."

Post MFA Recovery

The rule is that if I’m not creative writing I don’t get to blog. After much huffing and puffing I was able to expel a breech story this week. My reward is public blathering. As the guitarist from my band says, “I’ve suffered for my art. Now it’s your turn.”

Topic: Post MFA I’ve had problems finishing a book (as in reading one, never mind writing one). I blame the Rushdie lit seminar. One novel a week plus critical essays snapped a mind already worn fragile by plotless New Yorker stories. I remember experiencing the same reading burnout after undergrad. That summer I spent hours staring out the back window at a huge oak tree. The leaves turned brown, fell. A few months later the branches dripped cold rain. Then they were coated in ice. I wasn’t able to finish a book until the return of spring allergies. It took Stephen King to get me reading again. After four years of Plato, Hume and Wittgenstein I was in desperate need of a resolved plot.

This go round it’s only December and here I am reading already. For others in Recovery I say forget the short stories and go with the New Yorker staff writers. Good old nonfiction has come to my rescue in the form of Malcolm Gladwell. I read Outliers in a day. Devouring a book felt like an overdue chiropractic adjustment. Wasn’t that how I got into this mess in first place? Not because I had to force myself to read and write, but because I loved it?

I admit Outliers, while a great read, has some of the same problems King novels do. In the interest of concrete developments and meaty handholds, subtlety is lost. For now I’ll take story over subtlety, but I predict after a while I’ll swing the other way again. After all, it wasn’t that I didn’t love my MFA reading list, I burned out on it. I might even be ready for Alice Munro soon.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Book is Dead

The Chicago Tribune's Saturday book section (really, the Books AND MEDIA section, for pete's sake, as if books were not enough to warrant a 4 page section!) puts the crap in crappy. The horr(or) in horrible. Yes, I was happy that they finally got around to reviewing Bolano's 2666 about a month after its release. But no I do not need to read another review of a feline-based children's picture book in a half-page mega review. I just.don' Oh, okay book section, just go ahead and use pages 3-4 for reviewing bad movies and to teach me more about the iPhone. Where has all the substance gone?

And then fellow Tribune Co.-owned Los Angeles Times announced they are no longer running a book section back in July. The only thing worse than a bad book section is no book section! Sad me.

Craigslist: the barometer

I'm back on the (half-hearted) job hunt these days. If Craigslist has anything to tell us its that, yes, the job market is crummy. For a city with such a large population & a healthy number of bustling "industrial" suburbs (that is, the outlying areas where huge buildings for huge companies can crop up with the benefit of more acreage), the "writing & editing" page on Craigslist has always overwhelmed me with 20 or so posts a day to choose from. Have at it, it proclaimed! There's something here for everyone. Every day! Yesterday that number was down to a measly 3.

What in Chicago There is to Know

Everyone around me was very animated about Gov. Blagojevich's arrest yesterday. Yes, it's alarming in a number of ways. 1) This alters the perception of Obama's pre-inauguration activities merely by association-- that the governor was selling his seat to the most attractive bidder. This, for a president-elect journalists are convinced already has the pressure of "the first 100 days" before the first 100 days. 2) Some talking heads on the local stations have decided this also jeopardizes Chicago's bid for the Olympics because a corrupt city does not sit well with the Olympic committee (but...what about...China?!) and 3) Blagojevich tried to bribe the Tribune to FIRE PART OF ITS EDITORIAL STAFF! Freedom of the Press be damned I guess. These are some shitty times, my friends.

What I do love is how comical the public radio news coverage is. The stories always detail Blagojevich's rant that was picked up by his wire tap. The small 5-line bit contains no less than 3 instances of the word fuck. We all know this. We understand how context works. However, the radio must come up with a clever way to disguise this. Hence, the following: "effing", "bleeping" & the unwieldy mid-sentence "expletive omitted".

In other proud Chicago news: Mayor Daley is so hard up for money that he's cutting back side-street plowing for the winter. I'm not sure where my entitlement came from that I deserve to have a street I can pull my car onto without sliding through every stop sign but...please, pretty please won't you plow?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Healthy brain cells

Jacket on Oppen. Because hanging out in my department's mail room is not intellectually stimulating, I need brainy critical essays.

At work I did learn that healthy human brain cells do not allow perfusion. Diseased cells, however, do. This is how, in part, MRI scans sense cancer.

I ate too much for Thanksgiving. At an over-populated home in Columbus, OH. With 75 people all sharing the same last name (not of my family tree, either).

Also, as us writerly folk look forward to a cold-ass wintry trip to Chicago for February's AWP conference, I think of this essay Kay Ryan about the antisocial approach to AWP (an outlook I wholeheartedly support). I also remember how damn enjoyable the book fair was. Seeing Kevin Young et al. And John Irving telling us to write backwards to meet your beginning sentence; last chapter first, first chapter last. Joys!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mark Doty wins.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Plugging Our Friends: Brandon Shimoda's The Alps

Fellow UM MFA grad Brandon Shimoda's book The Alps is out. Check it.

Security blankets

As Obama continues to announce more filled vacancies in his administration-to-be, and the "plum" book is published claiming wide readership for just the chance to see "dream list" of career opportunities, I am contemplating the next j-o-b. This, due to the fact I am surrounded by and have only office supplies to commiserate with, which feels a little out of touch with reality.

I believe, now, my tasks at work can be replicated by a robot-- if this robot could wield Papermate Intro-brand highlighters, binder clips, "sign here" arrow post-its & navigate the intricacies of a wire inbox and outbox set.

I recently had a conversation with one of my supervisors about "my career path". I went ahead and boldy went where no 40-hour/week employee would go: "I have decided to teach" I said. That is, I went on to clarify, teach college. By that, I guess I (realistically) meant adjuncting. "But', she countered, "--ah... don't you want to pay rent?" And with that, hopes were dashed and I will quietly harbor these dreams of low pay and sharing a huge desk somewhere with the fluorescent lights of the local library glaring. Regardless, I will lobby hard for robot hiring in the next few weeks.

As Jan. looms, local community and suburban colleges have posted deadlines for full-time English faculty &, of course, composition adjunct positions. What can it hurt to have two or three part-time jobs without the benefits of vacation days, overtime or-- wouldntchaknowit-- health insurance instead of the 40-hours/wk without vacation, overtime or insurance now? I am in the very least pretty sure I'll feel a little more like a writer if I'm around some English department bookshelves. Right? Right? Does that make me weak and dependent on external circumstances for self-worth?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Notes from MFA-land

For my friends who miss being in a graduate program, the highlights of a week at school:

Monday: final "project" due (as project-y as a short story can be), comp student comes to office hours to announce that she's apathetic about writing and will no longer be putting effort into her papers, final project handed in on time, moping/depression about frustrated student ensues.

Tuesday: since project is in, time to catch up on reading. Distracted from others' workshop submissions by the excellence of a published story collection, still hung up on frustrated comp student.

Wednesday: Help frustrated student research, feel better, more reading, fall asleep over classmates' stories again.

Thursday: Finish reading workshop submissions, finish pleasure-reading story collection, take new book out of library, attend reading in Berkeley, workshop, cocktails with classmates.

Friday: no classes, lay around, clean apartment, hopefully post on blog for LEW's birthday.

The MFA life, almost a life of luxury (except on a budget and that budget on loan). Earlier today, I was ready to whine: that student depressed me; I could have done something more with my final project; I have a headache, which must be the result of a rough week (except written out it doesn't look bad at all). I got to spend hours and hours in the library (my favorite place). I saw friends, who share my interests and commiserate with me, every day. What's so bad about the MFA life? Nothing, I suppose. However, with commencement a semester away and the economy needing jump-start after jump-start, current satisfaction seems impossible (perhaps the underlying cause of my orneriness). If I can't help this one student, how can I hope to teach for a living? If I can't get this story right now, how will I ever write a successful story in the future? If I don't have Fridays off, will my living quarters ever be clean again? MFA-land is a happy enough place when experienced in the moment, but I worry about my departure from it. Next project: MFA weaning. (Although worry about the future prepares me for all the worrying that I'll have outside of school, so I may be on the right track already.)

The PhD Statement of Purpose I Wish I Could Send


I know you are bunch of creative writers. Probably last night you were out snorting cocaine off someone’s butt. Maybe you felt up a co-ed, or maybe you were at home, quietly bathing in angst. Either way, I know you don’t really care about this statement of purpose. We all know this is a ruse to keep that cranky lit faculty at bay and appease the cloak and dagger bastards at The Graduate School.

I know you are skimming this so you can get back to your own work. I’ll try and keep this short.

I am not crazy or an asshole. I promise.

The problem here is that I can’t say this. It’s like the creepy guy in the elevator who grabs your arm and says I’m not going to hurt you. But really, I am this totally great person you will dig.

And I might make it as a writer. I’m not necessarily the greatest writer ever to hit the universe, which is not to say I don’t have something to contribute. I just need a break. Can I have a break?

Please, I can’t wait tables anymore or there will be a DEATH soon. Whose death, it’s difficult to say.

Sorry, that was a little bit melodramatic. And I know murder goes against my claim I’m not a psycho. That was hyperbole. (I like to think correct application of the term "hyperbole" proves I’m ready for the lit coursework). Sometimes kind, ordinary people get pushed too far. Let me back off a bit.

Just forget it. Forget everything! Read the sample and you either like me or you don’t. Let’s get on with it. What you want to do, fine.

Monday, November 10, 2008

End Times

On Oct. 30, a man set himself on fire at the university that employs me. A couple of people from the other side of my office witnessed it. He was a former custodial worker for the U.


So the job is going fine, I guess. It's hard to really know what fine is, right now, what with the cognitive dissonance of the recent election. I'm re-learning how to mail merge, mostly. And making copies. Lots of copies.


I wish I could say that I'm writing. I guess I am, in that I write ideas or lines down at least once a day. Nothing is really striking me, though. I may be a little too overwhelmed with the immediacy of the day-to-day world to be reflective or generative at the moment.


I reserved plane tickets to go to Chicago for the weekend of AWP, though I will not be attending the conference. Rather, it will be an opportunity to have a reunion of sorts with the MFA diaspora and my college roommate. And perhaps attend some off-site readings around town. On an unrelated note, I also registered for my 15-year high school reunion over the Thanksgiving break. I haven't begun the requisite stock-taking review and evaluation of my entire life yet since June 10, 1993, but it's coming. Oh, it's coming in a big way.


Am considering applying for fellowships. I think this is one of the stages of denial that follows the MFA. It's the No-this-can't-possibly-be-all-there-is stage. Or the I-must-cling-to-academia-for-validation stage. Or both. I've actually set some wheels in motion regarding recommendation letters. It is very possible that someone may need to slap me until I come to my senses.

Choices A) -- C)

I am struggling with a) trying to recognize feelings of entitlement, b) deciding how big the spectrum of selfishness-to-dream-seeking is (and where I am on its sliding scale), and c) gettin' some perspective for myself.

I'm now on a one-day-a-week writing schedule, weekends mostly. This is frustrating, mainly because I'm choosing to make it so. I don't seem to be the type that is able to muster the mental energy to keep plugging away at a poem draft after I get home in the evening. My fault, yes.

When can we be entitled to carve out a little writerly life for ourselves? Am I supposed to even use that word? Was this time back in MFA times? Oops, did I hope it could magically last a little longer? Why is rent so expensive? Why did I pay for renter's insurance? Why do I only do my grocery shopping at Aldi every other week? Is "entitlement" just a word people who are naturally predisposed to feel like they are entitled use? Am I one of those people?

I can't help but decide that I should be selfish. This feeling is most pronounced when I'm at work using the letter and envelope printing functions in Word to address and send 25 letters of recommendation at a time for student(s) applying to Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Cornell et al. Same for those times when I've got someone banging down the door of the office, a stack of invoices, and someone on the phone.

Wait-- I'm in this temp position only through December. Where's the perspective? Really--I'm bummed about 6 stinking, measly, tiny weeks? Is that the entitlement creeping in? Dammit. I've been in school since I was four. Now I'm out of school. This is its own entitlement, I see. How fortunate I have been to work since I was 16--in retail, for federal work study, in business offices-- when each and every opportunity was for extra cash & the promise it'd be over when the summer/winter/semester was over.


But more importantly,

Anne Carson is dynamite in person. A performance artist. For this, I am content.

As part of the Chicago Humanities Festival two weekends past I attended Anne Carson's performance of her new stellar prosey-verse project Casandra Floatcan. Her reading was complimented by the projection of slides of the work of architect Gordon Matta-Clark (who made some holes, split some staircases), speechless volunteers walking stage left-right and back again with prints of same slides, and even a house constructed there on stage out of dowel rods. The verse dealt with the difficulty to prophecy (see Casandra of Greek mythology) and, well, prophecy (see architect who cut holes in buildings, for goodness sake). Also, a meditation on what it means to "float"; the fluidity of time/space/barrier.

Anne spoke quietly during her Q&A, a change from her confident tone during the reading. She asked for input from her collaborators around the stage, too, when she felt she might not be able to adequately answer a question alone. She commented on the shift in academia: how she feels that what was once a pronounced divide between genders (or, inequality) is no longer evident (or very reduced).

All in all, a fantastic performance.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

I Got Standardized

Sorry if that last post was a bit dark. I would say it’s all about to get better, except I took the GRE Literature subject test yesterday. I won’t be insulted if you would rather cruise a few You Tube kitten videos.

I signed an oath on a grid sheet swearing I would not talk about this test. I look out the window for unmarked vans, wondering if I'll write my book from a New Jersey gulag. I’m so Atwood Handmaid’s Tale right now. Maybe I'll go lubricate my cracked skin with a stolen pat of butter. But I’ll divulge information for the resistance as long as I can. Okay: Milton is on it. And so is George Herbert. Blessed be.

There’s a certain familiarity to the GRE process, the kind of comfort that comes from picking a scab. This is my fourth shot (My first round of subject and lit test results expired so I had to take them again); I know what to expect:

The night before you carefully lay out your admissions ticket/directions, go to bed early, set your alarm. Then you spend too much time drinking coffee, fly out the door, discover the test center is not as easy to find as you thought, take wrong turns, accost some toothless waterworks employee for directions, freak like a wooly booly as you search for the right hideous square building located on some remote campus. Which one is it? They all look equally soul-crushing. After a few wrong doors you find a golem-faced man behind a fold out table. His look says: you are unworthy to change the toilet paper roll in my bathroom. Oh God! You are there on the wrong day. But as you hand your ticket and id he nods. He nods! You’re okay! You’re in! Relieved, you file in to a sterile, fluorescent room where you see a row of glum twenty-somethings with greasy hair and wire-rimmed glasses. That’s the Literature Subject people. You wonder: Is that what I look like? Then you twist your hair and sigh for the next four hours as you fight the desire to crawl up some watchtower with an automatic weapon.

This time around I noticed a lame duck attempt at diversity. My favorite was where I was asked to interpret African American dialect in a poem. This is supposed compensate for ten questions asking me to interpret Middle and Olde English. Not that I’m not all for interpreting African American dialect. I grew up in the South. Girl, I got that answer. A few questions required I know the most famous South American writer and his most famous novel, and the most famous African American woman writer and her most famous novel. Sorry, I can’t be any more specific that that. I signed an oath. Again, these were the only questions I got. Then it was back to Merry Olde England.

I hope the Graduate Schools of Tennessee and UGA appreciate my wasted Saturday and $130, because I’m pretty sure the creative writing faculty doesn’t care.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Ask Miss Lonelyhearts

Dear Miss Lonelyhearts,

Every since I was a little girl, all I’ve ever wanted is be a writer. I wrote my first story at six and kept a journal through junior high and high school. I took writing classes as an undergrad, where the instructor took an interest in me. Dreams came true when one of my workshop stories was published in a prestigious literary journal. I applied to MFA programs and got into my top choice. They gave me a partial scholarship, which felt like a sign, as though God was telling me to be a writer, you know?

After, so I could pay my loans, I worked a horrible job as an insurance agent. But I was miserable, and not writing, so I quit to work on my novel. Then I couldn’t get an agent. I wrote a second novel. Still no agent. I decided to trust my instincts and go back to the first novel. I’ve revised, attended writer’s conferences, changed the POV, and removed all superfluous adverbs. I’ve done everything everyone has ever asked me to do, but all I have is a boil on my neck.

Last week, in a fit, I took a syringe and lanced the boil. It got infected, and now my neck looks like a sixth grade science project. I can’t go to the doctor because I have no insurance. I haven’t published anything since that one story. I can’t call my friends or family anymore, they think I should get a job and quit “this writing thing.” Life is a vast desert and I walk the sands of eternal desolation. Who is this God that would create us only for such suffering? Roaches are in my cereal, but I eat it anyway.

Fruit Loopy

Dear FL:

I’m sorry, but if I went to my agent with every half-baked manuscript, we would no longer have a relationship built on trust. So let’s get to the real fix. Why do you need to feel special? Try accepting yourself as sort of special. This means you are still special (very much so), just in a more attainable way! I think you’ll notice a difference.

If I’m reading correctly, I get that you are depressed? All this is covered in my book (plus many numerous posts) but here goes again: 1) donate time to a local soup kitchen 2) eliminate white sugar 3) talk to your local counselperson and/or clergy member.

P.S. Neosporin!!!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Change Happen(ed)

Chicago was elated last night. After work I went downtown to Grant Park to JumboTron the evening for Obama. A group of four of us gathered on the lawn of Hutchinson Field for the non-ticketed rally attendees with about 50,000 others by 8pm.

On our way to the park we passed an endless array of Obama-related memorabilia. One in my group purchased the endearingly boisterous "Obamapalooza" shirt. On the back, this shirt read "...I Was There When Change Happen [sic] in Grant Park Nov. 4, 2008". Poignantly, the borders of the shirt's margins had been breached with so much to proclaim that correct verb tense just wasn't in the cards. And even better? On the front of the shirt, the font of choice was none other than Mac's standard 1994-era font; you know, the one that appeared in Mac OS, oh say, 2 in the window's status bar.

I concluded the evening attending a friend's election-night party, to watch Obama's speech. The streets immediately came alive--literally--as bicyclers and pedestrians went into the medians and surrounded the subway stations yelling and honking their bicycle horns. Cars joined in with a crescendo of beeps. Sure, this is a little overly-sentimental sounding, but it's true-- everyone was celebratory in a big way.

Surprises: Pennsylvania, Ohio.

Montana. Well, not exactly a surprise, but a very close race for Obama.

Plus, recent Chicago art obsessions of note. Spires. They seem to be all over the news, in fact.

Chicago boasts a few notable spires. Sears Tower, the Hancock. Also the Chicago Spire, a height-defying building planned to enhance Chicago's skyline now postponed because of budget cuts. And, recently, artist Andrew Goldsworthy's new project working with San Francisco-area forested areas (on land once used by the military) for "natural" installation art was reported in the Times--building spires from already cut wood to eventually be "reclaimed" by the forest itself as tree growth covers once-open spaces. This was notable because of a collaboration class many some of us MFAers took with visiting poet Michele Galzer at Montana where we watched (and debated) Goldsworthy's 2001 doc "Rivers and Tides", discussing the artistic merits (or, as some saw it, folly) of his work.

Friday, October 31, 2008

It's Halloween: Do You Know Where Your Plot Is?

In the interest of transitioning from MFA neophyte to world weary, published author, I have been reading agent blogs and “straight shooting from the editor” type articles. I recommend this practice to anyone who thinks a love of Borges will translate into a three book deal. To elaborate: I have encountered (more than once) the criticism that MFAers tend to overwork language at the expense of plot. For the last day of October, I’d like to indulge full Libra mode, where I agree and disagree with both sides.

I agree!

In my MFA workshops, I read many (bottom line) boring stories. %90 of the stories in Best New American Voices are boring. Most of my stories are boring! (Note: code for "boring" in the industry is "pacing"). Often the culprit is lack of plot. You can include the best description of grandpa’s golf bag ever, but what’s the point if nothing ever happens with it?

John Irving’s lecture at the last AWP focused on plot. Plot, he said. My novels are all built around a plot. Then he stared everyone down, daring them to argue. I agree with Irving in that plot is often treated like the KY Jelly of literary techniques, this dirty little secret, because if you were a real writer, everything would develop “naturally.” In my MFA program some writers treated plot with an air of disdain. As though artists shouldn’t have to sully themselves. Not my instructors, though. They seemed pretty intent on reminding us that as fiction (or nonfiction) writers our job is to tell stories, not describe grampy’s golf bag.

I disagree!

Wait, did I just hear that correctly? Editors and agents are saying writers shouldn’t overly concern themselves with language.

Those boring stories I read in workshop? Many of them were boring because sentence by sentence, nothing intrigued me. And as for writers I admire, what I admire is the language. Yes, MFA programs emphasize literary fiction, not popular fiction. That’s why we went! If we wanted to write popular fiction we would have hunkered down with How to Write A Damn Good Novel. Instead we read Borges.

Plot and language? Language and plot?

Monday, October 27, 2008


In the LA Building, I had exchanges like this everyday:

“Hey, Aimee Bender is in Tin House!”
“Awesome! I’ll check that out. Gotta run. Speaking of 'devolution' , it's time to teach Comp.”
(Mutual chortles).

Don’t try this in public.

Perhaps the greatest trauma of post MFA life is having to (re)realize that writers you love and strive to emulate, whose books you have gently caressed in the night are, in a general public sense, nobodies.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been trying to form a writer’s group and one woman, a potential member, said she didn’t know how to describe her fiction. I prodded her a bit and determined she is probably writing Magic Realism.

“You should read Aimee Bender!” I was pretty excited about my suggestion. The woman nodded absently and the conversation drifted. But no way was I giving up on this. I loved Aimee Bender before I went to Montana. Then I had the chance to work with her and wound up loving her more; I followed her around like an imprinted duckling. I’m going to apply to the USC PhD, a complete long shot and probable waste of cash, because she is on the faculty.

“No really,” I said. “You should read Aimee Bender.”

I realized what I expected was for this woman to leap up, grab a pen, and feverishly tattoo my suggestion on her face.

Or at least act like she might check it out.

Nothing highlights the brutal chasm between the MFA bubble and the outside world like teaching Comp. Especially when you have no one to clutch in the hallway. Right now I’m teaching online, so I’m in it alone. One exercise my students have is they write a brief essay about writers with whom they have or have not “experienced rapport.”

Observation: Over half of my students mentioned Stephen King. I’m not here to debate the literary merits of King, at least, not at this moment. As for my students, most felt a “rapport” while a few didn’t, calling King “stuck up and facituss.” Either way, they have read him. This coming from a population who has no qualms telling their instructor they hate to read.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Plugging our friends

THE INLAND SEA, a long poem by Brandon Shimoda, our friend and fellow UM MFA grad, is available now for pre-order through Tarpaulin Sky Press.

All information, with Inland Sea image, here.

literary event!

The Poetry Center of Chicago hosted a reading by poet Li-Young Lee last night. He read for a majority of the hour-long event, evoking such image as "wings and the shadow of wings". It was his 15-min "interview", taped and recorded for radio broadcast, that was most enjoyable. The interviewer introduced Lee as "someone who lives and works as a poet-- his vocation is 'poet'; he is a teacher and writer..." Lee did not directly respond to this intro; I'm not sure if he even considers himself only a poet--or a poet in this restrictive sense--when talking about "what he does for a living". Indeed, I can't count the number of times someone follows up with the phrase "what do you do with that here?" after asking what I studied in Montana. Lee's on my side on this one.

Lee then explained the spiritual, and specifically yogic, functions of poetry writing. He mentioned lyric poetry as confronting the causal nature of the universe (and by "universe", I suppose I mean the totality of human interaction with time/death, etc.) and bringing a "unified psyche" to bare on language, in order to create a world view of synchronicity.

That is, lyric poetry refuses to acknowledge that the world is ruled by only cause and effect. Instead, the poet sees and attempts to describe one thing that happens to be "in sync" with the other thing. The poet describes parallels; and then implores the reader to seek out the connection there by means other than logical cause and effect. This, Lee reminds us, is a transcendent and meaningful experience.

Monday, October 20, 2008

OK, So I'm Not as Informed or Aware as I Thought

Just days after posting about the dearth of information regarding how poets publish, I find this via the Poetry Foundation website. It's an archive of interviews with poets about the process of publishing their first books and how it changed (or didn't change) their lives.

J-O-B Update: I Have One

I haven't posted much about my job search because, let's be honest kids, to do so would be indiscrete. This is the Interweb. Anyone can see the smack I'm talking. But now I can unleash the sordid truth about post-MFA job hunting because I shall hunt no more again forever.

I started applying for jobs before I'd even graduated. I was getting phone interviews before I even left Missoula. I was looking into marketing, copywriting, editorial and management positions. And the fact that I was getting calls back convinced me that I wasn't entirely out of my league. Inevitably, the interviews would root out the truth: that although I had two master's degrees under my belt, a way with words, a wicked sense of humor, and all the pluck of a Disney heroine, I haven't had a real professional job in over five years. Which means I haven't had real professional on-the-job experience in over five years. And a lot has happened in five years--in technology, in the job market, in fashion...

It didn't help that I was competing with so many other, more qualified (experience-wise) candidates. The development coordinator position for which I applied back in September drew 140 applications. The editorial position with a fantasy gaming position drew almost 200. I should be pleased that I even snagged interviews for some of these jobs, even if I didn't end up getting the job. But it's hard to shake the feeling that there must be something wrong with my face if I can't close the deal in person. Job hunting foments insecurity like nothing else. You ask yourself silly questions like "Am I really qualified to do anything?" or "Why don't people like me?"

So it came time to reassess. Yes, I was tired of not having enough money at the end of the month to do the things I wanted to do. I was tired of the constant credit card debt I had to accrue to make up the difference between my intake from freelancing and my rent and bills. It's not like I have a huge overhead. I'm not a big shopper. I have, like, three pairs of pants that fit. My shoes are old and worn. My computer is five years old and I won it in a contest. I don't even own an iPod. I don't need a lot of gadgets. I don't even eat out very much any more. I don't take extravagant vacations. I don't need a lot of money. I just want to be able to buy a non-yellow cheese every now and then. I want to eat my non-yellow cheese on nice crackers--not saltines. And, unfortunately, I had a taste of that good life back in the mid-90s, when jobs were plentiful and I got one right out of college. For six years I had a professional editorial position with benefits (back when I was young and healthy and didn't need them) and paid time off. Since it was my first job, of course I took it for granted. I whined and complained about the trivial problems that one will have with any job. The inter-office pettiness, the "low" pay (apparently, at 23, I thought I should be making six figures), the humiliation of working for the man, blah blah blah. Now that I've been spit back out into the job market and seen what it's like, I would give at least one kidney and a good portion of my liver to crawl back into the warm, wet, wonderful womb of that first job.

But the past is the past. And now, after all those months of tailoring cover letters and resumes and going to interviews and wringing my hands, good friend Amy emails to tell me there's an open office assistant position where she works. The hours are flexible. The pay is more than enough to keep me happily cheesed. The employer is a respected institution of higher education. It's temporary (there's a hiring freeze in state agencies) with the potential for permanance (should the hiring freeze be lifted). I would have the time and the mental space to write without having to worry about bills. I might even be able to start saving money again. Really, it's like manna from heaven, dropped in my lap. I had an interview this morning. I start on Wednesday. And I will be the best office assistant who ever office assisted.

The curious social etiquette of birders

I went birding. Both the kingfisher and flicker (a type of woodpecker) are frenetic and prefer solitary roaming, according to my guidebook. I noticed, too, the killdeer, bluebird and blackbird prefer loud groups and tend to create distracting flight patterns, possibly to make up for their diminutive size when compared to hawks and other raptors that share the same air space.

Immediately after MFA, I realized I was hobby-less. And this is a frightening, undignified place to be in. While in Missoula, I could count my 'hobbies" on one hand, and they all included something to do with writing (mainly because of workshop) or the weekend tasks that serve as diversion: reading for workshop, reading for seminar, attending poetry reading, attending fiction reading, attending nonfiction reading, reading the newspaper, watching movies, going to movies-- you get the picture. While this list provided amble free time amusement-- and intellectual thought-provocation-- it felt sometimes that I couldn't' bring in anything substantial to my writing that I'd directly experienced. Alas, I lack in the direct-experience category.

As I planned my move to Chicago I knew I had to seamlessly integrate a hobby into my new routine. Not that I treat a hobby--by definition, the very antithesis of "requirement", "work", etc.-- as grueling, but if I don't get something rolling alongside a big life change, it never takes hold. I had to treat this hobby-finding like starting a new workout routine. Richard Simmons was shoving the leg warmers in my face and politely chiding me toward better endeavors.

That's where I came to birding. My literary scope had always lovingly poked toward the avian community (I count Charles Olson among good company here). Earlier this summer, I joined the Chicago Ornithological Society. This past Sunday was the first birding event I've attended, at a local wildlife preserve. I had little idea what birds are native to Illinois-- although I correctly assumed they are similar, due to migratory patterns, to New York State's bird population. Surprisingly, even the Osprey I knew in Missoula show up here in IL.

When I arrived Sunday morning a group of 12 had already formed along the banks of this particular pond. The scopes were out and immediately scope-envy swept the group. As I approached I heard numbers flying-- which scope power, what brand and model number... Was it HD? Can you tell the difference, on a sunny day, between high definition scope and regular? (In some cases, no). Scope-talk took on all the intensity of LCD television talk. Later, Facebook, and the imperative of the COS group starting their own page for events and networking dominated the landscape where we saw pelicans, and a variety of ducks, including the Hooded Merganser.

Here, I observed the social etiquette of birders. Despite my intrusion into this very close group of dedicated birders, my inexperience was embraced and encouraged with reference to the online community of bird list serves, birding events, and iPod accessories related to birding.

When a bird is sighted by binoculars, all scopes in the group immediately swoop to the sight, and excited shouts go up. At any moment you are to stop what you're doing, stop what you're talking about, and play musical chairs for the closest open scope. This required focus and intensity.

Likewise, if you're engaged in conversation (related to birds or otherwise), either participant in the one-on-one may, at any time, stop in mid-sentence and wander away to another bird-viewing vantage point. You resume your conversation (or don't) at the next rendezvous point-- usually when the brush is too high to see over.

Other birds of note I've added to my life list:

Rusty blackbird
Cooper's Hawk
Mute Swan
Trumpeter Swan
Osprey (by sight of osprey tower, only)

Publication Strategies

A few weeks ago, as I opened another envelope addressed to myself, a dim memory rolled around in the back of skull. I remembered that I used get published regularly before my MFA. I wrote for Creative Loafing, mental_floss magazine, and quite a few zines that if we tally the numbers, have a much greater circulation than any given Suede-Elbow Jacket Review. Sure, I yearn for the word "Quarterly" in my writing CV. I have literary fiction short stories that (I hope) belong there. But in the meantime, why not write for some of the markets I used to approach?

In the interest of pimping, shameless self-promo, etc.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

P & W's take on Cider House vs. Stacey Lynn Brown

I post this link not because I have an opinion either way regarding who is right in this situation but rather because it is an interesting (and somewhat rare) look inside the poetry publishing world. To be quite honest, when I came out of my MA program in English, I still had no idea how contemporary poetry gets published. After my MFA program, I had a slightly less nebulous idea, but no real details. I knew that there were contests and reading fees. I knew that some contests were more prestigious than others. I asked around and found some poets to be unexpectedly tight-lipped about the process. Luckily I have met a few poets who have been forthcoming, even generous, with such information. From them I've learned that the poetry world is just as small as we think it is and because of this it is possible to develop personal relationships with presses. There are even presses that have open reading periods with no fees or that accept queries as prose publishers do.

And I've learned a lot from Stacey Lynn Brown's blog and the ensuing firestorm in the blogosphere about the other alternatives that exist for poets who would like to publish. So, regardless of who is right or wrong, I applaud Ms. Brown for posting her story and kickstarting what continues to be an educational and vital discussion.

Last Goodbye Kiss

For those in Seattle:

In Memoriam James Crumley:
An Evening of Remembrance and Appreciation

Richard Hugo House
Wednesday, October 15, 7 p.m.

Celebrate the life and work of legendary crime novelist and dear friend of Richard Hugo, James Crumley. Hosted by writer-in-residence Ed Skoog with guests David McCumber, writer and managing editor of the P-I, and JB Dickey of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, among others.

Montana MFAers, after prolonged visits to the Union Hall, used to embark on late night quests for this man. "Crumley!" they cried into the night. "We're going to find Crumley!" This was silly because he was always at The Depot.

Still, who will starry (glassy?) eyed MFA hopefuls go in search of now?

Age and literary "genius"

Oh, but merely a smidge of an interesting, but sadly over-generalizing, article in the latest New Yorker about age and the emergence of literary (artistic) "genius":

Prodigies like Picasso, Galenson argues, rarely engage in that kind of open-ended exploration. They tend to be “conceptual,” Galenson says, in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it. “I can hardly understand the importance given to the word ‘research,’ ”Picasso once said in an interview with the artist Marius de Zayas. “In my opinion, to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing.” He continued, “The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution or as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting. . . . I have never made trials or experiments.”

But late bloomers, Galenson says, tend to work the other way around. Their approach is experimental. “Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental,” Galenson writes in “Old Masters and Young Geniuses,” and he goes on:...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

P is for Publication!

Well, they aren’t my publications. But I’ve been in workshop with these people, so it’s like a contact high.

First up we have Marvin Shackelford (a second year at Montana now). His story Floaters is freshly minted in the latest Quarterly West.

And Naomi Kimbell recently heard that her essay Whistling in the Dark has been selected for a forthcoming Black Warrior Review.

Go Griz!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Presidential Candidates: Arts Policy Statements

Let me start by saying that this post in no way means that I am a one-issue voter or that I think arts policy is the most important issue facing the nation right now. It is simply relevant to what we're doing here at the Three Ps. MFA is, after all, an abbreviation of "Master of Fine Arts". I also don't expect that this post will sway readers either way in making their decisions this election year. In fact, I had already made my voting decision (based on a combination of other issues) well before I read either of the candidates' positions on the arts.

So why bother reading about said positions in the first place? Well, I've had a lot of conversations lately--face-to-face and online--regarding the position of the practicing artist in this country. Are we just frivolous, superfluous persons or are we doing essential work? Must we empty bedpans in order to be viewed as contributing members of society? So maybe I'm just looking to our candidates' arts policies for some sense of legitimization beyond/outside the subset of art adherents. And killing time in between freelance gigs.

A look at John McCain's campaign website turns up no specific information on arts policy. A Google search turns up this blog entry, which is a place to start. However, when I visited, I didn't find any evidence that McCain wants to eliminate the arts. Rather, a look at a policy survey from 2004 shows that he would "slightly decrease" arts funding. But perhaps something has changed since 2004. If anyone has any more current information, I welcome comments below.

Then there's this telling comparison of the candidates' arts policy "stances". Judging by colum inches, Obama's plan is certainly bigger.

So what about Obama's plan? Well, he does address the arts on his campaign website, but you have to do a little hunting. You'll find it listed under "Additional Issues", which is probably as it should be. Predictably, the first point in Obama's plan focuses on children's art education. Again, this is probably as it should be, although it has always been one of my pet peeves that art isn't supported as a lifelong pursuit beyond the public school years. If you say a program or project is targeted at K-12 aged kids, it's a lot easier to fund than, say, a project targeted toward seniors or the 18-34 demographic. But I digress.

Obama's plan quotes the Chair of the NEA (Dana Gioia? The person isn't named): "The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a byproducts" and goes on to yammer about creating a more well-rounded populace, which seems to reinforce the prevailing notion that artists--people who define their vocation as the creation of art--are extraneous and that the status of "artist" is not one to which youth should aspire.

So, what else? Oh, there's an Artist Corps, increased funding for the NEA (no dollar figure is given), some stuff about cultural diplomacy and exchange, a nod to public/private partnerships (i.e., foist the costs onto private sector foundations and corporations). Nothing groundbreaking here.

The plan includes a heading about health care for artists, which is really just a restatement of Obama's plan to provide "affordable" health care for "everyone."

And then there's this oddly specific mention of the Artist-Museum Partnership Act, which amends the IRS code to allow artists (in this case, visual artists) to deduct the fair market value of their work rather than just supplies and materials come tax season. Which is great. Truly wonderful. For visual artists.

Overall, it's nice that Obama has a plan. But it's a fairly vague plan with a myopic view of what art is, who artists are and the place of art and artists in our society. Again, nothing surprising here.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Duende Abides

Chicago is full of people and mounted police. Sometimes, you can catch an officer and his horse running the length of Michigan Avenue Beach. And it's weird. Sometimes, someone who is touched will post this on a dumpster in Logan Square: "Mama No Bred / Buy Gold to Eat / I Will be a Good Nun..."

An unseasonably warm weekend, I spent Saturday biking the Lincoln Park/ Michigan Beach/Loop trail with visitors, winding up on the BP bridge of Millennium Park. We stumbled across a amateur tour guide who informed us the bridge spans 900 ft. This, to traverse a 200-ft. distance. I mention this because, well, metaphors are comfortable. Maybe there's some "troubled water" down there. Who knows.

A few weeks ago a friend worked her magic to score a follow up at a Chicago-area university to my long-pending, lost-in-the-ether temporary employment application (entered, oh, in July). And this was my single most-developed lead in the job front up to this point. I'd managed one interview in person for college comp. teaching and one phone interview for an editor gig. Nothing. Following this, I immediately received a call, came in the following day for an interview, and was hired for an assignment to start the following Monday.

Now. Three weeks later. I've got the hang of a hour+ commute on one bus, one train, one 1/2 mile of walking x2 each day. I've identified--but still cannot speak or make direct eye contact with-- those fellow passengers that have the same weekday schedule, working their way from bus to train, taking stops before and after me.

The job itself is that 900 ft. of bridge, where 200 ft. will do. The paycheck, on the other hand, is that cultural value of the bridge-as-participatory-art-piece. We like it. We're glad for it. Even when it doesn't make any logical sense. Nor does this bridge advance my artistic goals. My goal for survival is met. My duende is not happy until I get back to the couch at the end of the day.

I still have the satisfaction of participating in some specialized, technical aspect of language, as a freelance editor. This reminds me that not everyone puts the Elements of Style under their pillow. And yes, the maddening level of attention I grant to ensuring gnarled syntax and diction in my poems allows me to identify and know when language is being used unconventionally and how to ungnarl it. Luckily, convention still rules my life these days, with proper sentence structure essential to ensuring that supplementary paycheck.

Writerly social endeavors, lack-thereof:
Saw Junot Diaz at the Chicago public library a couple weeks back. Proceeded to obtain book signature and fawning fan photo. Social outings to consist of celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving with literature-minded friends. Projected ratio of beer drinking to conversational asides about elliptical poets: 10-to-1.

My Sunday Morning

Nothing builds confidence like seeing your picture under a headline in Galleycat (the Media Bistro blog) that reads “Bad Year for MFA Graduates.”

Dude, ouch!

The blogger goes on to relate the sorrowful tale of ’08 MFAers in a flagging economy. Oh no, wait. That’s what he says we are doing.

Then there’s the comment from a “DorothyP:”

Why not combine poetry with a helping profession, such as medicine? Or banking? Or working in a customs house? I'd amazed at the number of recent MFAs who seem think that their art will sustain them body and soul, when in fact, the concept of a full-time poet or writer (without family money) is pretty recent. Maybe emptying some bedpans would make the world a better place than teaching some dreary undergrads.

Excuse me while I bolt posthaste to the St. Ignatius Home for the Infirm.

It’s true, though. I often wonder if I am doing anything for the world by writing. Maybe I have confused myself with Leo Tolstoy. What is the difference between an artist and a sad sack MFA grad? Who decides? When should I give up? After the twentieth lit mag rejection? After the 100th? How many times do I send out my book proposal before I go join a “helping profession?”

What, I’m not helping?

The problem is no one knows while they are writing if their work is a legitimate contribution to society or the indulgent musings of a selfish jerk. Maybe a tribunal should be set up to sort everyone out. You, novelist! You, go dump some poo!

I know that we don’t remember and love Wallace Stevens because he was a kickass investment banker. I also know you don’t want me anywhere near medical equipment.

To end on an up note, right before I posted I found this comment from The Wandering Reader.

I have no doubt that these three young ladies will be successful; while people always hope to have a career in writing or teaching after receiving their MFA, there are other things that can be done with a MFA in the meantime.

And then...

…it’s at times like these that writers need to band together. Good to see that the three young ladies featured in your post have started that process already.

Thanks, Wandering Reader! And I do have a teaching job. That requires a Master’s no less! (More on this later).

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Post MFA Pep Talks (Pump Your Fists, Say Yeah!)

When I was researching MFA programs, I admit I pooh-poohed Columbia out of hand. Word was the average grad had $60,000 in debt. I heard a few sordid workshop tales. Even the application fee was expensive. Why would anyone go there? I thought, as I practically applied to state schools that offered TAs.

I don't I regret my TA. If I had a huge student loan, I would be in a state of panic right about now. And I went to a program of which mere mention makes my heart clench in lost love. But I'm forced to admit, as I trek the murky swamps of the post-MFA, I see a goodly amount of Columbia MFA bylines. Especially in nonfiction. More than once I have read where Columbia grads (for instance Meghan Daum in one of my all time essay faves “My Misspent Youth”) debate the cost-effectiveness of the degree. Yet as my rejection-slip-covered soul devours the printed, published page I have to wonder. It can’t hurt to attend a program in a city where the vast majority of publishers, agents, and major magazines live.

It’s too bad Columbia and Montana can’t combine to form the perfect MFA mullet, business in the front – party in the back. Now that I’m facing the business end, I find myself turning to a book by a Columbia grad, Betsy Lerner, a poet MFA turned editor turned agent. I recommend her The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers for anyone in the pre-pre-writing stage, which means you aren’t actually writing, but reading books about writing.

Too busy you say? The book lists are long and the bathtub soaks too short? Okay, here’s the Sparknotes:

1) It’s tough, but hang in there.
2) Don't call the editor at home.

No, wait. I can do better:

1) Write as if your parents were already dead
2) If you are in a program or conference, use the time to learn from writers who are a notch or two above. (Of course the catch here is that you have to be willing to admit that).
3) Write with your ideal reader in mind (i.e. writing for everyone often translates into writing for no one).
4) Write the book you want to read
5) Write for your mentor or fiercest critic

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Shameless self-promotion...from a delinquent blogger

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The "Link" Between Creativity and Mental Disorders

"Experts say mental illness does not necessarily cause creativity, nor does creativity necessarily contribute to mental illness, but a certain ruminating personality type may contribute to both mental health issues and art."

Wow. That is some groundbreaking science. It never would have occurred to me on my own. I'm glad we live in a world where there are scientists and experts to uncover these mysterious connections for us. I hope we're paying them enough to do this kind of intellectual heavy lifting: "If you think about stuff in your life and you start thinking about it again, and again, and again, and you kind of spiral away in this continuous rumination about what's happening to you and to the world -- people who do that are at risk for depression." (That's Paul Verhaeghen--psychologist, novelist and one hell of an articulate guy).

Now if they can only tell me what defect in my brain chemistry led to the decision to pursue poetry rather than, say, astrophysics or nursing or some other, more-conducive-to-cash-flow vocation, we'll be all set. If they can come up with a drug to combat the aforementioned defect, that's even better.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Cutbank on Newpages and Poetry Foundation Website

Hey, there's a review of the latest issue of Cutbank up at NewPages.

Also, Forrest Gander plugs the UM program in his Harriet blog on the Poetry Foundation's website.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Waiting Game

I haven’t posted in a while because I haven’t had much to report and I haven’t felt passionately responsive to anything (literary, that is. I’ve been caught up in the lunacy of the upcoming election, but that is a subject that is already being done to death in the blogosphere and I doubt that I have anything substantive to add. Just more toxic vitriol that bears a striking resemblance to the toxic vitriol of other thirty-something underemployed artsy liberals).

So here’s the quick and dirty update: I’m engaged, a couple of my poems have been accepted by a couple of journals, I interviewed for a job and didn’t get it, I interviewed for another job and am waiting to hear whether I've made it to the next round of interviews, my aunt gave me a car, we signed our pug up for obedience training, I’m still freelancing and I write occasionally, mostly in response to prompts from my writing group.

I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary poetry. Mostly stuff published in the past five years. To familiarize myself with what’s being published. To see how other writers sequence their books. To get an idea of whether endnotes are a good idea or whether they’re self-indulgent. To figure out if there are publishers out there that might be a particularly good fit for my manuscript. And also to enjoy myself. Because I’m not entirely self-centered and I actually do love poetry and it’s one of the few things that keeps me from ineffectually spinning my wheels about employment and politics and the economy and the environment. As a side note, I totally dug Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s In the Absent Everyday .

But really, it is all about me. And my book. I’ve revised it. I’ve sent it out to a finity of contests. I’ve considered whether sending it out to contests is a waste of time based on recent debates about the pros and cons of the contest system, I’ve researched publishers that hold no-fee open reading periods and found them few, I’ve revised again, I’ve considered formatting (2-inch margins or 3-inch margins? Alternating headers? Leader dots in the TOC or empty space?), I’ve come dangerously close to weeping for no good reason, I’ve considered changing the title of the book to Albatross so I can call it Al and it can be my bodyguard, I’ve shown it to and received feedback from many people—poets and non-poets alike. And now I am dwelling in the space of What now? What more? Mainly, it’s about the waiting. Waiting for responses, rejections. Waiting until my eyes are fresh enough to look at the manuscript again and consider further revisions. Waiting until the next thing grabs me and I can write in a different mode (a different register, a different mind) and produce contenders for the next book.

I’ve never been good at waiting. The magazines in the lobby are never interesting enough to make it feel like you’re being productive with the time. Someone has always reached the puzzles in Highlights before you and marked all over them in ink. Even though it’s ever so important that you get those teeth cleaned, it feels like there’s something else more important that you should be doing...OK, so this metaphor totally doesn’t fly. I’m not sure what gingivitis represents in the process of trying to get a book published, so I’m just going to admit defeat on this one.

So scratch that and let me begin again: I’ve never been good at waiting. But that’s what I’m doing now.

P as in PhD: A Reprise and a Brief Rant

To recap, I applied to two PhD programs and was accepted to one, Nebraska, but without funding. I decided to defer and work on my book for a year instead submerging myself in lit coursework. Good decision, but if an agent doesn't bite on my proposal, then I'll try to break in the old fashioned way: Get the University press to publish my dissertation. Then I have that gold star needed for my job and visiting writer apps.

Options. The way of the unknown writer is to try any and everything. So...I'm thinking I should cast a wider PhD net this time around, which means I have to decide about the GRE Subject test in the next few days. Do I really want to pay $130 (!) to not know the answers to a series of questions about fusty British fuckwits? Yet three programs on my list (USC, Knoxville, UGA) all require it. I don't believe for a red hot second that any creative writer faculty member cares about the score I get. FSU and UNL don't even require it. (Why I applied). That I would waste time studying isn't an issue.

But $130 is a lot of money for a student loan living poorling. And it's a scam. How can the GRE not be insanely profitable? You hire a few academics to write questions, rent a room and collect the cash. Furthermore, the test is outdated. It might as well be called The Thackeray Subject Test.

Complicating things further is that USC and Knoxville both accept about two students every return of Pluto. The chance of admission is very slim. Sigh.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Schmoozing and Boozing in Nola

The hardest part about living as a nobody poorling in a fantastic, interesting urban center is that you know exciting, amazing, spectacular events are taking place all around you. And you aren’t a part of them. In Missoula as an MFA student, I was pretty much guaranteed an invite to the best time in town. If a famous writer was downing shots of Jack Daniels at a bison ranch, I was there. Now I’m sitting (and at least writing) alone in my apartment most of the time. This is New Orleans. I can’t exactly complain that there are no good restaurants, no fun parties. It reminds me of a Jack Nicholson line from As Good as It Gets, “Some have great stories, pretty stories that take place at lakes with boats and friends and noodle salad. Just no one in THIS car.”

In the interest “getting out there and meeting people” I attended two happenings last night. The first was release party for the Oxford American New Orleans issue at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The second was an event held by the “504 Ward” which is “an innovative community seeking to build a world-class New Orleans by connecting fledgling New Orleanians to one another.” Both I was invited to through a random email from a friend of friend. Both were scheduled at 5 on a Thursday. Guess that’s the hot time in the city these days. Here I go all week with nothing to do at any particular time, suddenly I’m in huge demand for an hour.

This being New Orleans, I wasn’t particularly worried about punctuality. I left my house at 5 to walk down to the Ogden Museum of Art. As a writer and a fan of the Oxford American I put this event first in the queue. I savored the walk knowing from experience this would probably be the best part of the night. Ah, the moment of possibility — my buzz from that first, home pre-cocktail taking hold, the smell of fresh shampoo, the fall crisp in the air, that hot taxi cab driver who noticed my dress. I strolled from the Lower Garden to the Warehouse District, checking out real estate, fantasizing about my book deal so I can buy a two story home on Coliseum Street, second story wrought iron balcony and floor length windows a must.

At the Ogden, the art was cool, but the happening was not. It was one of those things, where you have no idea what you are supposed to do, why you are there, why you have been invited. The OA had a table set up with a few pamphlets and one copy of the New Orleans issue, which some woman with spiky hair, red lipstick and horn rimmed glasses promptly snatched up and stuffed in her purse. I meandered, hating that I looked like everyone else, a whitey, artsy liberal in search of something to do, living like a blog entry for Stuff White People Like. And as much as it sucks going to plastic cup events with a friend where you huddle in the corner and don’t talk to anyone, it sucks even more by your self. I walked up to couple and asked if there was something I was missing. Was there something else? Wasn’t this missing something? No, they said, nothing else, but they agreed it seemed there should be something. By “something” of course, we all meant cocktails. Here I was at a plastic cup event, but no plastic cups! In New Orleans! The horror!

On Napoleon, cars were piled in the median for blocks. You would have thought the Neville Brothers were playing for all the cars jammed around Tipitina’s. People were spilled out on the street. Turns out this event had open bar. And food. The crowd was more conservative, more of a khaki pants, shoulda moved to Georgetown type crew. One of those Joe Blo and Kokomo Blo Boy jam bands was playing, and although by myself, felt okay slipping around by myself in the dark, especially after a couple of complimentary Old Charter and Cokes.

The organizers seemed very nervous. Money was at stake here. I could smell it. A small throng gathered on stage grinning for their presentation. They passed a mike around, telling us that we were the bold, bright future of New Orleans. I didn't mind. They played a short flim/ad that featured some Dave Eggers looking guy waxing the poetic about “his city.” After that we were encouraged to “network,” that the person standing next to us might be our next lawyer or financier. Intentions seemed good, but like all events that try to force intimacy, felt awkward.

Finally, I realized the only hope was to try and meet the other people who hate these things but come anyway. I went outside to find the smokers. I found my friend Anne Marie who I had tempted with the open bar, so I would have someone to huddle with. She is a smoker, and sure enough, within ten minutes the Camel Light trap lured two people who work with NOVAC, a company that works to promote the Nola film industry. Through chitchat, Old Charter and Joe Camel I maybe found a band to play with. So maybe I networked after all. I’m not happy about it though.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Working on my Book Proposal

Midnight. Reading All the King’s Men. I live in New Orleans, so I’m glad I’m reading this classic, Pulitzer Prize winning novel. “Lots of nights I would go to bed early, too. Sometimes sleep gets to be a serious and complete thing. You stop going to sleep in order that you may be able to get up, but get up in order that you may be able to go to sleep…You don’t dream in that kind of sleep, but you are aware of it every minute you are asleep, as though you were having a long dream of sleep itself, and in that sleep you were dreaming of sleep, sleeping and dreaming of sleep infinitely inward into the center.”

12:15. Sleep.

3 am. Awake! My car insurance is going to be insane. Everyone says it’s double here in Louisiana, because you never know when you might find a flurry of crayfish nesting in your engine block. It’s raining right now. Really hard. My neighbors said their car flooded, but it was only an old Kia so they were excited to buy a new VW Golf. Maybe my car is flooded right now. Should I go out there? I need to deal with my car insurance. Should I try and pretend like I still live in Montana? Who should I ask to pretend to be my home address? I’m pretty sure my policy expired Friday.

4:23 I know exactly why David Foster Wallace killed himself. It's all in the Lobster. “Be apprised, though, that the Main Eating Tent’s suppers come in Styrofoam trays, and the soft drinks are iceless and flat, and the coffee is convenience-store coffee in yet more Styrofoam, and the utensils are plastic (there are none of the special long skinny forks for pushing out the tail meat, though a few savvy diners bring their own). Nor do they give you near enough napkins, considering how messy lobster is to eat, especially when you’re squeezed onto benches alongside children of various ages and vastly different levels of fine-motor development—not to mention the people who’ve somehow smuggled in their own beer in enormous aisle-blocking coolers, or who all of a sudden produce their own plastic tablecloths and try to spread them over large portions of tables to try to reserve them (the tables) for their little groups…Nothing against the aforementioned euphoric Senior Editor, but I’d be surprised if she’d spent much time here in Harbor Park, watching people slap canal-zone mosquitoes as they eat deep-fried Twinkies and watch Professor Paddywhack, on six-foot stilts in a raincoat with plastic lobsters protruding from all directions on springs, terrify their children.”

4:26 My car is flooded right now. A throng of nutria rats, shrimp and roaches are swimming in a black gumbo that used to be my transmission.

5:00: Attended a writer’s group yesterday. I should have known it wasn’t going to work out because it was held at a Barnes & Noble. It makes me sad, thinking of writer groups everywhere, everyone working on a novel. Like say, MFA programs. Everyone thinks the MFA is this huge step, but only when they don’t have an MFA. Not that it isn’t pleasant, this lull, this extended cocktail hour, this time where you gather with other people who all feel plucked from the teeming throngs of nerdy Barnes & Noble writing groups, but no matter what, I see that sitting around and talking about writing is not the same as writing, and really not the same as getting published, and then let’s not even talk about having someone actually read the damn thing. Have you ever walked around a Barnes & Noble? Have you ever really examined the stacks and stacks of books? How many of those have you read? Crap. I’m only on page 101 of All The King’s Men. I shouldn’t write at all, but dedicate my life to reading classics of literature.

5:30. I should just get up.

6:00. The coffee isn’t working.

9:30. I’m dreaming about a basement filled with nutria lab rats. A scientist with a pumpkinhead tends to them.

11:00. Eleven? Are you kidding?

11:30. My family has no idea how hard this is, trying to be a writer.

12:00. I can’t call State Farm. I have got to get to work on the book proposal.

12:35. Mail call. A rejection today from The Georgia Review. I didn’t catch that they don’t take simultaneous submissions, so my rejection was a form letter with a check by a sentence. The sad part is I thought I read the submission guidelines. I’m not just some asshole that spams lit mags. I read a few issues. Just like they say. Then, after debating which story of mine I thought would be a good fit, I printed it out in a very unique way and hand addressed my mailer with my best pen. I wrote what I thought was a pleasant cover letter. I didn’t suck up or try to explain my story or attempt to showcase my wit. The irony is my sub wasn’t a sim sub. That I forgot to delete that sentence from my cover letter was just a typo. I’m an asshole fuckup. I am never going to get published.

1:30 I should find a magazine that will take a sample chapter from my book. I’ve read that’s a great thing to do. Let’s see. American Scholar? No. Bitch? No. Midwestern Bisexual Traveler? No! No! No!

3:00. I don’t really worry about hurricanes. When I say I’ve moved to New Orleans people always ask me about hurricanes, but they don’t bother me.

3:15. Okay, I’m getting to work. Really. No Facebooking. No blogging. Here I go. Here I go. Here I go.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Job Fair, silly Job Fair

The Job Fair is best observed from the outside, looking in. This I now know.

On Tuesday I took the bait, as advertised in the paper, paying $15 for four hours in the parking garage at Soldier's Field (usually reserved for the Bears). This, after my partner and I barely made it out of the house alive and without wardrobe malfunctions.

Wait. Rewind. I did manage to temporarily disable my laptop, after jarring the USB drive containing my resume in the port. Travis then proceeded to, distracted by my frantic running across the entire length of the apartment multiple times, accidentally drop his laptop, breaking the power adapter. Two hours past our estimated departure time, we leave. Stop at Best Buy. Find power adapter. Rejoice.

We arrive at the designated parking lot for the job fair. I pull up--now five cars have filled in behind me--only to discover neither of us have enough cash to cover the parking. (Wait--shouldn't a sponsored job fair have free parking? No, I guess not. Nothing's free. Shouldn't the garage take credit cards? Where's the ATM?) I then am forced to back out the car, disrupting about 12 other cars in their frantic attempts to parkwalkandinterview. Damn.

Finally, we make it inside the job fair. This is not your average booth display. This is a highly regulated, multi-tiered affair. Experienced health care or information technology professionals in search of their next health care or I.T. job are siphoned off to the upper-level or back room. The General/Professional pavilion remains ours for the taking.

With 10 resumes each in hand, Travis and I split up, headed for the shortest lines. Retail, insurance, managerial opportunities abound. I brave speaking to an insurance representative, an association forum organization rep. and, finally, a corporate-headquarter rep. Here, I take different approaches, trying out varying introductions. To the insurance person, I take the generic approach: "...I'm interested in what entry-level positions are typically available..." He directs me to the website, and I decide against launching into my humanities background. Nor do I bother imagining the editing possibilities for fear of a let-down. The other two fare similarly. I hand off only one resume, and I am referred (with possible editing leads) to their websites. I impress one person with news of my recent relocation from Montana. I then quickly make my way to the "door"...

The door is one of two possible openings in the large screens placed around the perimeter of the booth-laden section. It's hot and crowded, as hundred at any given time vie for a place in line at one of dozens of booths. I find myself hoarding a concession-stand bar stool, shuffling papers around in my bag to look busy and focused to no one in particular. We eventually both find the exit with a few job "tips" and vague "contacts", and a few less resumes.

I found the atmosphere and general experience more rewarding than any concrete notion of a job I might be hired for. This fair, of course, is more comfortable for someone who is able to initiate a memorable and meaningful conversation. I am not one of these people. I need to anonymity of an online job posting, and hours to obsess over a cover letter. Yes, the employment pages remind me that "no one, not ever, has gotten a job without 'knowing someone'." To my dismay, this might be true.

The search of a viable full time day job continues. Temp. agency opportunities look promising. In my daze from Tuesday, I wear the same pant suit to the agency interview. This time, wrinkles and all, I score a spot on the will-call list. Now I just wait (and call) and see.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Particle Colliders and Philosopher Royals

This and This.

Interiority. Dark matter. Keats. "The Events of the Day". Contemporary Poetry. Mathematical symmetry. Navel gazing. "Purer beauty".

Stir in a pot. What do you get?
I survived my first Job Fair. Details soon.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

For Those Who Are Currently Sending Out Poetry Manuscripts

A warning and an education.

Birds and trees and such

It's raining in Seattle. I have a porch, which is nice because it means I can see the rain close up without feeling it directly.

And in the trees in front of my porch, I see birds (this one's for you, Laurie).

I think this is a Steller's jay. It makes a sound like those noise-makers one finds at children's parties. You know, the stick with a box at one end that, when motivated with a swift wrist motion rotates around the stick. In other words, a grinding sound.

(Steller's jay flexes like a superhero). A good friend's older sister used to pronounce the word "bird" as "pyood" when she was a kid. I like the sound of it. I like pyoods. This one is especially stellar.

In other news, against a backdrop of monotone sky, coniferous needles take on an aspect like tatting:

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Working Woman for a One Day

My temp agency has landed me a sweet gig ushering and handing out clipboards for $10/hr at a motivational seminar on Monday. I have to dress "Business Professional," which is a genre of attire that is not currently represented in my closet. So tomorrow I will go shopping and spend more on the clothes than I am likely to make from the job. For justification, I look to Clinton of TLC's What Not To Wear, who says "If you’ve got rotten teeth, you don’t just bleach them to make them look better. You fix them. If your wardrobe is rotten, you can’t just throw on a cute shoe and think it’s going to work. Throw out the garbage and start replacing it with pieces that work." I'm not sure how to feel about the dental metaphor, but my wardrobe is rotten. And you know what they say: You've got to spend money to make money. The clothes make the (wo)man. Dress for success. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have (Which is why I'm sitting at the computer in my astronaut helmet, balancing the alien harpoon on my knees. Just in case.)

Unfortunately, I've always thought that people of my height (or lack thereof: 5'0") look ridiculous in business suits. Should I tuck my lilliputian mits into the double breast of my fitted dark neutral blazer and declare myself emperor of the French? Should I march up and down the corporate halls, drunk on the clacking power of my Naturalizer 2-inch heels? Honestly, striped coveralls, cowlicks and lollipop sceptres seem more appropriate. And more fun.

I am, however, quite excited about the prospect of working a motivational seminar featuring the likes of Colin Powell, Zig Ziglar, Suze Orman and Terry Bradshaw. Motivation has been a real problem for me since graduation. Maybe I'll learn something. Also, I love Terry Bradshaw. I've seen Smokey and the Bandit II, like, a kazillion times. If that guy can't give me the key to unlock my future, no one can.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A list of my brain's list

The pure banal joy of an herb garden. In my kitchen! Those little captive seedlings.

I noticed two typos in my thesis manuscript upon (now three months too late) much closer inspection. The first, a misspelling, "even" for "ever"-- in my epigraph nonetheless. The second, a missed (misplaced, forgotten, delayed) period in the last line of a poem. Sure, easily misconstrued to my benefit as the "opening of possibility past the end of the poem/page". Ah but what shame! And now you all know, too.

Considering the remote possibility of formatting and sending out a chapbook-size selection of my thesis, the following possibilities: Flume Press, Tarpaulin Sky.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Yay. The first post-MFA publication! Just found out one of my poems will appear in the Sept. issue of Fawlt magazine. Theme: Perfectionism.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Guest Blogger Amy Schrader on Having Fun with Writing Again

At the very end of July, I was reading the 4Culture newsletter, looking for the mother of all grants that will solve my financial problems (do they have a credit card debt consolidation grant?). I found this instead.

So now I’m participating in the Poetry Postcard Fest 2008, sending a poem-a-day handwritten on a postcard to consecutive strangers on a list for the entire month of August. I have cheated once, and used one previously-written poem (In my defense, it was on a day that I was suffering from a particularly nasty head cold.) But all the rest, so far, have been written daily, written quickly, and written (mostly) without anxiety.

This is kind of a big step for me, since I haven’t been writing regularly at all since graduating from the MFA program over 2 years ago. Then, pray tell, you ask, what have I been doing? Well, mostly obsessing over the fact that I’m not writing regularly. Dreading those literary social events where I’ll run into people who were in my program, knowing that we’ll all stand around awkwardly with plastic glasses of wine in our hands, asking each other “So…are you writing?” and experiencing a sharp, secret glee when anyone answers, “No, not really.” I’ve been submitting my poems to journals and my manuscript to contests, and garnering many fine rejections. Reading my “free” 1-year subscriptions to journals after entering their publication contests, and seeing name after name after name of poets that I know contained therein. Feeling sheepish and discouraged when my friends use words like “anaphora” and “semiotics”, but I have the tendency to say “awesome” over and over in general conversation. Wondering if I am, maybe, not really a poet after all.

But I have been a poet for ten days’ worth of postcards now, and it feels pretty good. It’s such a relief not to be bound up in the “Am I writing? Am I not-writing?” mental debate, and to be able to give myself permission to write a little poem, a fast poem, a casual poem…even a bad poem! I’ve also been able to practice non-attachment, since I’m writing the poems and then immediately sending them out into the world, where they will belong to someone else.

In the absence of the pressure to be a “serious” poet, writing poems is suddenly fun again. I’m back in the habit of writing every day, even if it’s just for a little while. I’ve been reminded that I actually like to write. And, of course, my young Jedi apprentice, once you stop worrying about writing something good, oftentimes you do write something good. And that’s pretty awesome.

Amy Schrader holds an MFA from the University of Washington. She was a semifinalist for the 2006 and 2007 Discovery/The Nation poetry contests and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Tin Parachute Postcard Review, Willow Springs, Pontoon, and the Tupelo Press Poetry Project. Amy is a 2008 GAP grant recipient and she lives and works in Seattle.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Dog-Vomit as a Metaphor for Post-MFA Life

I’ve just returned from a month in Prague. We receive our pug back from his grandparents. “He’s had a wonderful time,” they say. “He was an angel—absolutely no trouble,” they say, and I know it must be a lie because if there is one word in the English language that describes this pug, it’s trouble. To a T.

Next morning we wake up to the sound. Those of you who have four-legged furry pets know it—the *gulp, blurp, blub* that precedes a hairball or a vomiting episode. No big deal. Happens all the time. I rise, groggy and bloodshot, to clean the mess. Next morning: *gulp, blurp, blub*

Hmm. Odd. Like clockwork almost. Like a very regular, very nauseating alarm clock.

“Maybe he’s pregnant,” jokes my partner, wielding rags and Lysol.


Padraig (that’s his name, it’s pronounced “Patrick”) has been going through some changes lately. A month-long trip to Portland, being weaned off his puppy chow in favor of big-boy kibble, our feeble attempts at training him with little more than pleading tones and broken pieces of Milkbone dog biscuits, a recent move away from the only home he’s ever known. I know how he feels. So I begin with the little changes. No more Milkbones for a while. No trips to the dog park, where those ruffian Seattle dogs could be harboring any number of virulent diseases. A larger portion of puppy chow in his morning meal (I’d never heard of regression as a treatment for vomiting, but it can’t hurt, right?).


It’s the middle of the night and there’s that familiar sound again. I get up. I step in a puddle of mucous. I turn on a light and track mucous through the house to the computer, where I Google a number of combinations of “pug,” “vomit,” “symptoms,” and “treatment” until I find this sage advice: withhold food for 12-24 hours and begin a bland diet of chicken and rice.

The next morning, I leave Padraig starving at home to go grocery shopping. Raw chicken makes me want to vomit, but I love my dog, so I buy the least offensive and cheapest package in the meat case. I remember that we’ve got a package of basmati rice at home. I debate: Is basmati rice bland enough? I still don’t have a job, so I wonder, Is it cheaper to purchase new, crappy rice now or feed Padraig the expensive rice that I already have? I decide to go with the basmati and head home.

For dinner, I boil the rice and chicken in separate pots, keeping the chicken water for soup stock (I’m poor now, so it seems like something I need to do even though I never make soup and I have no idea how to use chicken water in the process). When the chicken is done, I cut it into miniscule, easy-to-digest pieces. I add the rice and smoosh it all together. I add water because Padraig might be dehydrated from all the puking. I smoosh it all again. I give it the smell test: smells OK. I wouldn’t eat it, but it smells OK. I give it to Padraig, who eats it with gusto and promptly vomits it all up again. And as I stare at it, lying on the floor like one of those perfectly shaped domes of rice they serve at Chinese restaurants except for having been in my dog’s stomach for all of 3 seconds, I wonder if maybe I should leave it there. Maybe he’ll eat it again. Maybe I won’t have to cook more chicken and rice and smoosh it and add water and smoosh it again if he just eats his own puke. And while I’m engaging in this fantasy, Padraig has already retired to the bedroom to sleep it off.

So I decide maybe I fed him too much. I go back to the drawing board. Boil. Cut. Smoosh. A much, much smaller portion this time. I wake Padraig up and coax him to eat. Never one to turn down food, he does so willingly. I spend the next two hours glancing at him, listening extra hard for the sounds of imminent vomit. Nothing. We enjoy the rest of our evening and go to bed. Three A.M.: *gulp, blurp, blub*

I’ve had it. This is where the metaphor comes into play. All of a sudden, my dog’s illness represents every anxiety of my life. I can’t do anything right. Something is terribly wrong and, despite all of my good-faith efforts, I can’t fix it. This is my life now: dog vomit. I apply for jobs; I don’t get them. I send books and chapbooks and poems to contests; I don’t win. Morning, noon and night for the rest of my days: dog vomit and my vain efforts to staunch it. I am inconsolable. My partner is tired and disgusted and in no mood to deal with my existential crisis. He sends me out to the couch to try and get some sleep, promising that he’ll deal with any other episodes that may occur during the night. But I can’t sleep. It’s gotten so bad that even in the silence of nothing happening I hear it: *gulp, blurp, blub*


It’s the morning of the fifth day of puke. We have broken down and taken the pug to the vet. The vet is a lovely woman. She is going to fix everything, I just know it, because her last name is Lamb and that's like Jesus and when she fixes everything I’m going to kiss her full on the mouth. She checks Padraig’s stool. Negative. Her assistant checks his temperature. Normal. She pokes around his abdomen, feeling for blockages. Nothing. She looks at his gums. Pink, slimy, perfect. There appears to be nothing wrong with my dog. So she prescribes some meds and some hydration and she subcutaneously injects a bunch of fluids into his shoulder and tells me he’ll absorb the stuff throughout the day and it should help and eventually the unsightly lump of fluid on his back will go away. Right now he looks like Quasi Modo with his quavering little back-hump. Or a camel. Or Fergi.

So it’s been almost eight hours with no puke. I haven't gone back to the vet to kiss her on the mouth just yet. Padraig is resting comfortably on the couch, having uneventfully eaten his evening meal. I am cautiously optimistic. Maybe, for now, this one problem has been fixed. Of course I am left to wonder whether there’s a subcutaneous hunch-back cure for chronic unemployment and rejection. But I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. At the moment, I’ll settle for vomitless nights.