Monday, March 31, 2008


$500 from the Provost for Prague!

I wasn't holding out much hope since I'll have graduated by the time I actually take the trip. I guess the Provost sees that it can only help to have students (current or former) networking internationally. See--asking for money is always worth a try, regardless of doubts about potential success.

Update: And $800 from the President's Office.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Poets are extraordinary bucket-kickers

This from Gawker. And pretty much every other blog or newsy place, too (CNN, the Poetry Foundation, Silliman's and Oliver de la Paz's blogs to name a few). I see "studies" like it in the news every couple of years. My conspiracy theory is that it's a ploy to get people interested in poetry and its vast collection of lovely corpses.

But really. I bet you could substitute just about any genre of artist (other than fiction writers) for "poet" and the same would be true. Ukrainian egg painters, emo rockers, mimes, etc. Maybe, instead of studying nancy-boy poets and our notoriously weak constitutions (the nature of which has already been established, I think), maybe these dogged "scholars" should study the unnatural longevity of fiction writers. That, my friends, might actually turn up some useful information.

My favorite comment on the Gawker post comes from a user named, appropriately enough, "riskybusiness": "This is not surprising at all, considering how stabby poets make me feel." Me too, risky, me too.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Internet Job Applications

I just applied for a job. Not just a job, but a job for which I am actually qualified. I couldn't pass it up, even though I had made a deal with myself that I wouldn't apply for real jobs until I had graduated (since I can't really move before August, it seems like a waste of time applying for jobs that are being listed now).

So I should feel good, right? But I don't, and here's why--It was an internet application process. You know the one--where you take your beautifully formatted, agonized and fussed-over resume and turn it into an ugly unformatted text document. You don't even get a chance to write a cover letter, to explain all the interesting quirks in your availability and how you may not live in the city yet but will by the time your potential employers need you. Or how you may have spent the past four years writing poetry, but you really aren't a flake. Really.

It reminds me of a story from a friend about how, when she had her son, she switched to 3/4 time at her job. Unfortunately, the payroll system didn't have an option for this, so it continued to pay her full-time salary. Now she owes thousands of dollars to her employer and has to work out a payment plan.

My point? It's an inhuman world out there in employmentville. Much as I (obviously) love technology, there are some areas of life it can't account for. Or, I should say, that its input operators forget to account for. The cynical part of me thinks that these are purposeful oversights--that employers don't want to deal with anomalies or exceptions, so they blame their inability to do so on the "system". Since my optimistic side is a shriveled-up, dusty old prune, I don't have a positive spin to offer in rebuttal.

The implication here is that we, the (potential) employees, shouldn't create "anomalies." We shouldn't create circumstances where we need to shift to 3/4 time or be gone for a month. And here's where my guilt reflex kicks up a storm--should I even be taking a trip to Prague right now? Isn't that incredibly self-indulgent? Shouldn't I be doing everything I can to get to Seattle, preparing myself to be the perfect job candidate?

But there's the little bit of me that is still naive and hopeful that one can have a job that reflects and allows for the life one wants. There are different ways of looking at this situation that don't place me in the role of supplicant. I am, in fact, a highly skilled, experienced worker and my potential employers are just as much candidates seeking and competing for my skills as I am a candidate seeking and competing for a job. For better or for worse, they'll have to take me with my quirks.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

On Shared Spaces

Today's the first official day of Spring. Yes, we still have a bit of snow here in Montana. But, now there's more sun on any given day than we've seen for the past five months previous. Now that I'm out hiking trails again, I've been thinking about the tiny indoor spaces I've called home this past two years.

1. Language Arts 127. My T.A. office. A 10' x 10' room (I'm bad with eyeballing measurements, but I'm pretty sure this is accurate within two feet) shared with three other T.A.s. Picture this: Fuchsia rug, one computer taking up much the surface area from one of three desks in the office, one mammoth (all wood!) filing cabinet, and a bookcase underneath a mirror. Our home. There we are M-F, playing hypothetical musical chairs for two-ish desks for the four of us.

This arrangement makes planning a necessity. Luckily, our teaching schedules vary just enough to make double occupancy the only threat at any one time. This does make student conferences a little sticky. We've each faced our fair share of confused glances from students looking for their instructor, sure they've got the right office. "Yes, come right in, s/he should be back shortly" we've rehearsed.

I'll admit it. My cleaning obsession can be a burden. I've subjected my office mates to unknown bouts of bookcase rearrangement. I've classified books (to my defense, many of them composition textbook hand-me-downs from previous office tenants) according to size, topic, and/or author. I inundated 98% of the top shelf for my poetry books temporarily. I even have been know to rearrange the plethora of coffee mugs according to open space availability.

Composition Portfolio Time is my favorite time of the year in the office. On the last day of our class, all four of us drag in approximately 24 1" binders showcasing the work of our students. We plop them down on the desks, silently pleading with them not to cascade across the desk when we turn our backs. Then, we grade--

2. CutBank literary magazine office. Ah, my second-second home. Eerily similar to aforementioned room, this 12' x 15' office features no rug, two desks, and an office computer beside boxes & shelves of incoming submissions, outgoing correspondences and CutBank issues from 1970s to present. A stunning second-story studio space, this quirky space lets us editors convene in style as we read, read and read some more.

I love the smell emanating from the just-opened boxes of our latest print issue. I'm a sucker for office supplies, the written word, and color paper stock. Yes, I also like Sharpies too much to keep my hands off the scrap paper. I create and adhere temporary labels to anything in that office with a box around it, if the managing editor hasn't beat me to it.

Reading CutBank submissions reminds me of what good company we find ourselves in. Sure, there are a fair share of poems that would flabbergast any editor, and sure, some of the well-published writers might be considered "competition", but I'm reassured when writers out there choose to keep sending their work to lit mags. They read lit mags. They live in interesting towns. Some have gone through MFA programs. Some even edit other lit mags. I like this. For every long-winded cover letter (see previous post), I'll find another from a writer similar to myself, just graduating from an MFA program, hoping to see his or her work published. I know I'll miss this "insiders look" at the Graduate Student Literary Enterprise experience. For now, I'll remember not to knock over the chair as I walk into the office.

The Didn't-Make-the-List List:

English Dept. Office HQ, our haven for all things teaching: mailbox, copier, printer & supply closet.

University Center, all things lunch: UC Market & food court

or, Food For Thought, the restaurant that supports all post-teaching debriefs from your hosts.

Friday, March 21, 2008

On Squeezing Stones

It's a sad day, the end of an era, really. I sent what will very likely be my last travel funding proposals (for the WMU Prague Summer Program) to the Office of the President and the Provost today. And I shot for the moon on this one--to the tune of $3,700. I'd say that even if I don't get any funds, I've had a good run at UM. The University paid for my trip to AWP in NYC in January and for all but $400 of my trip to Russia last year. At this point, any further cash is icing on the cake. Unfortunately, now I have to strike out in search of new funding sources. I have to learn a whole new set of ropes in my ongoing effort to soak The Man for my art. But before I go, these are my tips for traveling on a University's dime:

1. Think big. Apply to every international writing program, retreat, and conference that comes along, no matter how costly.

2. Come up with a budget. Include everything you might possibly have to pay for in this budget: airfare, rental cars, gas money, program tuition/conference registration, per diem meal costs, accommodations, cab fare, visas, bus passes, etc. Always round up on any figure in your budget.

3. Come up with a proposal. How will this travel contribute to your learning? How might it possibly benefit the university? Get creative. Embrace your inner bullshitter. You can justify any expense, and you know it.

4. Go outside your department. If your department is anything like mine, it's small potatoes in the funding realm. The university president's office, however, has discretionary funds for just such occasions. So does the provost's office. So, possibly, does the Dean of Arts and Sciences (depending on your university). Send your proposals and budgets to these people. Don't be shy. In addition, the Graduate Student Association or equivalent usually has some money to throw at worthy causes, so hit them up, too.

5. Sometimes you'll need to purchase tickets and reservations on a credit card and be reimbursed after the fact. Don't sweat it. Airline tickets and hotels are the easiest things for universities to justify reimbursing, so count on those being covered before incidentals like program tuition or conference registration. Food is your least likely bet.

Appendix: AWP hints

There are lots of reasons to go to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference: networking, parties, readings, parties, free books and swag, parties, etc. I've been to AWP twice now the U-dime. Both times, I sent papers to and was accepted by the AWP Pedagogy Forum. The "paper" is really a 1-page curriculum idea for the creative writing classroom. I've never actually taught creative writing, but this is not a roadblock to having ideas about how I would teach it if given the chance. Anyway, having a paper accepted at the conference is a foolproof way of getting at least some funding.

Otherwise, get involved with your program's literary magazine and put together a proposal to represent said magazine at the conference's bookfair. Your school's litmag may already have plans or policies in place for this.

The money is there. You just have to make the commitment to finding it and making it your own. You work hard. You deserve some perks. There will likely never be another time when the money is this easy. Take advantage of it. TAKE EVERYTHING YOU CAN GET.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

An Addition to the Litmag News Arena

Just found Luna Park via a reference in The Rattle litmag blog. As Tim notes in the latter, NewPages is great, but its reviews are generally positive. It should also be noted that litmags pay to be listed on NewPages, so it makes sense that the litmag reviews would be generally positive. They do a good job of giving press to noteworthy issues from the piles that they receive every month.

Luna Park, on the other hand, seems to have no monetary relations with the litmags it reviews (although it does feature ads in the form of links on the right-hand side of the homepage), which (possibly) allows for a somewhat freer hand when it comes to noting where litmags fall short. That being said, it appears that most of the reviews are glowing, with the Rattle review as the exception.

Beyond that, though, Luna Park provides news about litmags, excerpts from recent litmags, and commentary from editors and participants in the world of small-press publishing.

My position is this: Any coverage of small-press/literary magazine publishing is a good thing. The website is well-designed and the content is varied so I've added it to my favorites.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Litmag Wisdom (?)

Having worked as Managing Editor and Assistant Managing Editor of The Bellingham Review and Cutbank, respectively, I have some opinions on what and what not to do when submitting to litmags. I should note that these opinions are largely informed by the graduate student experience of screening submissions and not the nonprofit, non-university-associated editorial experience. I should also note that I am a writer who sends out work, who receives rejections regularly, who understands the heartbreak, and who is near enough to broke. I have chosen to work for litmags during time as a grad student as a way of learning how they work. I highly recommend that other writers do the same if the opportunity presents itself.

As an editor-type, these are my pet peeves (in no particular order):

Clever cover letters. First: As a graduate TA with a second, part-time job, I only have so much time to devote to reading submissions. I don't want to wade through paragraphs of self-congratulatory schtick to get to the relevant information. What's more, the more one writes, the more chance there is of annoying the screener to the point of prejudicing him or her against one's work. Bottom line: Name, contact info, bio in under 50 words, and recent publications (the last two items being optional). In addition, I don't need a synopsis of your story, nor do I need a lengthy explanation of what your poems mean. If I'm doing my job correctly, I'll be able to figure those things out for myself.

Form cover letters. It may seem only fair that since many litmags send out form rejections, writers should be allowed to send out form cover letters, CVs, or page-long lists of publications. Not so, my friends. Not so.

Bitter Cover Letters. I don't really need to hear that you expect a "timely" response to your work. Nor do I need to hear your sob story about how you've repeatedly submitted and been rejected by our litmag. I don't need to hear about your terminal disease and how this may be your last chance to "place your children".

Postcards vs. SASEs. It's all about time. We have form rejection slips. When you send postcards instead of SASEs, you're asking us to find a pen and actually write a response to you. This is the part where I remind you that we're unpaid volunteers, reading and responding to work simply for the love of the game. As a screener, I want to spend the bulk of my time carefully reading submissions--not scribbling personal notes to writers who chose not to pay the extra 15 cents for envelope postage. In addition, I'm not keen on the "notification of receipt" postcards. We don't mention those in our submission guidelines, so it's safe to assume that they are not part of the deal.

Content. Far be it from me to say what writers should write about. I'm merely noting the content that seems most prevalent and least interesting based on what I've seen so far: parents in nursing homes, with Alzheimers, with terminal illnesses, etc.; pomegranates; cicadas; conversations in cars; pet death; average joe plans a murder or deals with its aftermath; professor-student sexual relations; life as a student; life as a teacher; redneck makes good; relationship didn't work out...bummer; travel to a foreign place opened my eyes; having a baby opened my eyes; brush with death opened my eyes; nature is good--I want to describe it in vague detail; etc. and so on.

What I'm getting at: "Write what you know" works to a point, but it's no substitute for complexity and vivid imagination.

Those are the big ones. Those are the ones I wish I'd known when I graduated with my handy-dandy creative writing degree 10 years ago. Before I sent my work to The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly. Before I knew that litmags even existed.

One of the best things a professor ever did for me was to show me his file folder of rejections. Said professor was somewhat of a major player in his field and it never occurred to me that such a writer could ever be rejected by anyone, for any reason. Such was not the case. His advice: develop a thick skin. You are not your work. If one magazine doesn't want it, another one will.

I would add to this a simple tip: Make mistakes. Learn the ropes. Be your own best advocate and avoid the silly pitfalls as much as you can. Also, don't be a weirdy.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Graduation Blows

The internet is rife with fretting MFA applicants. “Oh god if I don’t get into Western Winston County State’s Lo Res Large Print Program I’ll just die I’ll just die.” “Response to donkeykong…I respect your position that the poetry faculty at Yuccado Tech is lot of whoring seadogs, however, I ask you consider that for many of us, that environment will nurture our Work.” I myself am guilty of a little Schadenfreude to get me through the day, plus I get to relieve a time I now remember with blinky eyes, because I got into my top program with a TA.

You notice that all us about to graduate don’t have so much to say. That’s because we’re on the return trip from a Tijuana fiestablast, hungover and rife with bacteria from Alabama frat boys . Which is not to say I wouldn’t drive South of the Border top down screaming, sling open the bar doors, down a bucket of Patron and say “Howdy Boys” all over again.

For now I’ve applied to few of the usual suspects (Stegner, Wisconsin, Colgate) but don’t expect much. I might as well toss a Frisbee in the Grand Canyon and expect to hit a pygmy hippo. This isn’t to say I don’t believe in pygmy hippos, or that I don’t desperately want one, because I do. Other believers out there? Anyone? Anyone?

Possible Thesis Titles

Titles are pretty much the last thing I should be worried about. But, simply put, I have no idea what to call the 20-or-so poems that make up my thesis. My chair looks at me funny every time I make a new suggestion. Kind of like she thinks I'm stupid or something. Possibly because I'd like nothing better than to call it "Whitney Houston," but I don't have the money to purchase the copyright.

So here's a list of titles that have been suggested to me or that I've come up with all by myself. Some serious, some not. I've decided to put it up for a vote.

1. Gut-sad Suck
2. Industrial Follicle
3. Ochre's Retinue
4. Regular Hours at the Conservatory
5. Imaginary Thaw
6. No Fruit
7. No Bananas, Yes
8. The Waxless So-Ons
9. Pull My Finger
10. I Love to Watch You Leave
11. A Haven is a Leaving
12. Leave
13. Whitney Houston (I'll be taking donations to pay Ms. Houston for the privilege of using her name)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

RE Self-Doubt

I'm not an optimist. I have pessimistic/realist tendencies. I'm an idealist, save for the actual idealism. But I'm stubborn about one ideal: We're stuck, we're in it for the long haul. We signed up for this. We knew it long before arriving here, and we'll be reminded of it long after we've left the mountains. 

It's in our writer-blood. We signed and sent the memo. We'll keep writing-- maybe sporadically, maybe three lines per week, maybe in a manic haze for five days without sleep (every 6 months or so). Or maybe we'll sit down every day and force words on the page. We'll do it. I know we will. We do it to keep sane. 

Here, another Cary Tennis response from Salon to an equally distraught MFA fiction student debating whether to leave her program or see it through to the degree, despite feeling out of place:

t turned out that writing to save myself was the best way to write. Here is why, I think: Our writing is the voice of a person who is innocent, powerless and in need of protection; our writing is the voice of a person who needs to be heard as he or she really is. It is deep stuff is what I mean. And shocking as it is to say, the person who is writing this--the person that I am today--is the kind of person toward whom I once would have leveled pitiless scorn.

Salon, you read us like a book.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What If I Stop Writing?

I got my BA in Creative Writing (Fiction). After graduation, I found a decent office job and my writing effectively ceased. In fact, I've never written fiction since, except for the occasional narrative prose poem. Now it's 10 years later. I'm facing graduation and the job market and wondering How do I keep this momentum?

So I was reading Salon today and came across a letter to Cary Tennis that addresses my fear. Mr. Tennis makes some valid points in answer to the writer who is no longer writing nine months after graduation from a Masters program. Develop a daily writing practice. Suspend goals and closure--write because you want to, write for no reason at all. Take a workshop. He even mentions The Artist's Way, that mid-90s bible for blocked woo-woo writers that, indeed, I read and took to heart way back when. Did it help? No.

I think the problem is in the gap between an awareness that a daily writing practice is necessary and the actual creation of a daily writing practice. When you're working an 8-hour day, it is really difficult to come home and write or wake up early and write. Not impossible. Wallace Stevens did it. Doc Williams did it. But I'm no Wallace Stevens. It has occurred to me to get a part time job just until I can finish my manuscript. But it's really difficult to pay the bills that way. And when will I be "finished" with my manuscript? When it gets published? When I start sending it out with hopes of publishing it?

Add to that the anxiety of writing. The constant need for affirmation, which dries up after one leaves the supportive atmosphere of a program. There are no more workshop buddies, no more professors to encourage you to keep working. All of a sudden, one has to affirm oneself, constantly. That sort of self-actualization is hard to maintain when the rejections keep rolling in.

I am well aware that the only way to keep writing is to simply keep writing. Maybe I have developed enough confidence by now to believe that my writing is worthwhile and that it matters more than vegetating in front of the television after a long day of work. I also know that very few of the writers from my MA program still write regularly, and those do so because they went on to MFA programs. The others have become bogged down in the daily grind of making a living. On the other hand, there are enough books, articles, blogs, and sundry other media being published every year to indicate that some people must have found a way to do it.

One of my instructors here at UM has suggested that the single most important thing one can do in an MFA program is find a couple of good readers one trusts and maintain contact with them after the program. Keep sending them work and ask for feedback. Offer the same help to them. I think this is sound advice. It will certainly be the primary strategy in my plan of attack.

Monday, March 10, 2008

On Tanking a Reading

You know all that stuff they tell you (they being smart people who know these things) about how, when giving a reading one should practice, keep a bottle of water close at hand, practice, make eye contact with the audience, and practice? Well, it's true. If you don't practice, you do stupid crap like lose your place, stumble over unfamiliar words, mispronounce words, and generally make a fool of yourself.

I also learned never to: wear big clunky shoes that make one teeter, drink excessively before the reading, read from a printout with a font smaller than 14-point Times New Roman, and show up without any notes to introduce each poem or group of poems.

I'm not a fan of reading banter or cleverness. Really I'm not. But to some extent the audience is showing up for a show and that needs to be addressed in some manner.

Also good to know: If a friend comes to town to read with you, or if your friends come to town to see you read, resist the temptation to eat and drink excessively for the three days prior to your reading. The pants you planned to wear won't fit if you're bloated and you will find this out with 20 minutes to spare, resulting in a desperate hunt for fat-pants that are still dressy enough to wear to a reading.


And also good to know: Take any and every chance to read in public that is offered to you. I've avoided readings since I've been at Montana and my ability to perform in front of an audience has suffered for it. If I had it to do all over again, I'd read on street corners for change every Tuesday afternoon.

Thank God I don't have it to do all over again.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Second Wind Reading Flier

This is what I came up with for my reading as a part of our MFA reading series. I'm not a graphic designer. Sue me.

I'm editing my thesis, I promise

T-3 weeks until thesis must go to second readers. Cue odd feeling of detachment from all of your poems sitting there on the floor. You feel unable to verify you've actually written these words on the page. You're not sure if you should really be writing haiku, since editing takes you straight to "less is more" land and won't let you go. Poems once sprawling, unwieldy, adventurous, (and perhaps misguided) are now paired, sliced and diced from the direction of the Internal Critic.

Ah, but there is hope: spatial organization of poems makes for a lovely carpet.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

A job right up our alley?

Recently perusing (desperately) the Craig's List Chicago-area writing gigs, I stumbled upon a "creative staffing" organization Creative Circle. C.C. sends you email job opportunities as they arise, according to preferences you set. A temp agency of sorts, they can organize a meeting if you're presently located in their HQ cities: Chicago, L.A., N.Y.C., San Fran., and Seattle. Moving to any of these cities? A recent MFA graduate who secretly loves to copyedit? Then, yes, you should look.