Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Work Behind the Reward

87º feels like 100º ~ dewpoint 78º ~ SCUBA weather to be sure, days and days of it with pop-up thunderstorms dancing around us in the afternoons and evenings and only occasionally providing any rain, any cooling temps ~ in other words "it's a wet heat" that sucks at the lungs

Most of you know that last week the Porter Fund Literary Prize committee announced that I would receive the 2016 prize. This blog is not meant as a continued brag of that success but as an unveiling of what went into that success.

The Porter Fund Literary Prize is a prize to support Arkansas writers. Like many awards for a body work rather than for an individual piece or book, there is no application process. That's what I want to talk about here, recognition / prizes given by organizations that don't take applications. Here, I think of the Whiting Awards as an example at the national level, although there are many others. If you are like me, when these types of awards are announced, be they local, regional, or national, you experience a twinge of jealousy and a "why not me?" moment. All perfectly natural. However, this is also frustrating because it appears that the author has no way of putting her work before the selection committee. So how do these things work?

Most non-application awards take nominations, either from within an organization or by soliciting suggestions from established writers, editors, agents, etc. So how does one go about being nominated, let alone winning?

First, as writers our primary focus must be on crafting the best writing we can. We may disagree with a selection committee's decision because we don't like another writer's work or we don't like that writer's personal behavior, but let's face it; for the most part, those who receive recognition have been putting in time at the desk. So, first, focus on the writing (which is a whole other blog post).

Next, if you are a writer who yearns for recognition, I'm afraid there is more to it than just producing the text. You also have to be a solid literary citizen. By this I mean that you have to be invested in the community of writers. Yes, every once in a while a hermit writer receives great accolades, but if you look at the winners' lists of most awards like these (those that do not take applications), you will see a list of names of people who are engaged in the conversation of writing. They may have a highly visible online presence on social media or they may write a popular blog (or for a larger online conglomerate). They may publish essays and interviews in Poets & Writers, The Writer's Chronicle, and other "industry" journals. They may run a reading series, edit a journal, or work for an indie publisher as well as publishing in their genre(s). In other words, when the selection committee is casting about for nominations, those people who are active literary citizens are most likely to come to mind.

And let's be clear, just because a nominator knows you and your work does not make it a schmoozy / slimy nomination. If you are an active writer in today's interconnected world, you are going to know other writers. You are going to know editors and publishers and agents. It's only when you play on those relationships, when you offer "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours" that you cross the line to slimy. Check your own inner voice and you'll probably be okay. (Reality check: there will always be nepotism and a good ol' boys network. We can only be responsible for our own actions and try to be aware if we are participating in such behavior so we can change it.)

The fact is you won't be nominated if your work isn't already being read and talked about. Yes, there are many gatekeepers, and the deck is stacked against women and people of color, not to mention stacked against those of us who don't live in a major metropolitan area with a thriving literary scene (gatekeepers are yet another blog post entirely). So, what are you going to do about it? Here are some of the things I've done.

I've been persistent and stubborn and managed to publish widely in journals and with three full-length collections. Let me tell you, my rejection rates are above average, but I keep revising, I keep working on my poems / manuscripts, and I keep submitting. Sweat equity.

I've engaged with writers in my local community. I've made it a point to reach out to writers I learn about who live close by. In some cases, I've made good friends who are now part of my regular life. In other cases, I've made connections that have made me comfortable interacting at local readings and book festivals. In most of these cases, I've read wonderful books written at desks not all that far from my own.

I've found my comfort level in how I participate in the larger literary conversation. I started this blog and found my first online writing friends and colleagues. Then, though I was hesitant, I joined Facebook, where I enjoy a thriving sense of community with other writers, and even some close friendships. I'm not so deeply in love with Twitter, but I've figured out where I want to use it and how to do it. I attend AWP each year, not because I'm trying to collect "connections" like notches in my belt, but because I receive a huge emotional boost of support from getting to see so many of my virtual writing friends in real life. I've been an editor for several online journals, and I've read manuscripts for two of my publishers. I started a reading series at my previous institution, and I am active in nominating writers to appear at the established series at my new university. Finally, when offered the chance to help form a new writing conference for women, I jumped on board. Yes, all of this is time consuming, sometimes stressful, and for little or no pay (mostly no pay), but it also fills me up and gratifies me.

I've made a conscious effort to champion writers I admire, whether I know them or not. I've made a conscious effort to read widely and diversely to combat the gatekeepers. When I read a poem that blows me away, I Tweet/Facebook post about it. Often, I send private messages to a poet when I've read something that strikes me as extraordinary. Most importantly, I buy books of poetry, so many books of poetry that I don't have time to read them all. (Note: it's only recently, 10 years out of grad school, that I could afford to buy so many. In early years, I still bought what I could and I used the InterLibrary Loan system at the library all the time.) To me, part of this is a natural urge to be connected to the world of writers, but the other part is this: I don't feel comfortable sharing my own good news because I was raised to think that this was conceited bragging, and Midwesterners don't brag. To do so might call the wrath of hailstorms, floods, and drought down on our crops. So, when I do post about a success or share the news in other ways, I can silence my grandfather's haunting chastisement because I know that I'm also celebrating with other writers when their turn comes.

Finally, I've made it a practice to say "thank you" on every level, whenever it is appropriate. This world of writing is so often thankless and so often done for passion and love rather than fame or money. Saying "thank you" is the least we can do.

I'm not saying that doing what I've done ensured that I won the Porter Prize, and I'm not saying that if you copy me you will be recognized for your hard work. I am saying that putting your head down and doing the work of both writing and being involved with other writers in some way, shape, or form, gives you a fighting chance of receiving some recognition for your words.

Thank you for reading and for your support. As always, I'll be here with my BIC and my faith that doing the work is what matters.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Reaching for Joy in Times like These

92º feels like 101º ~ the world here is all sun, blue skies, small breezes, and heat heat heat, the neighborhood full of sounds of saws as folks continue to clean up after Thursday night's severe winds

This past two weeks have proven, again (as if we needed more proof), that we live in dangerous and difficult days. I've spent a lot of time thinking, thinking about what makes someone reach for hate and violence, and I've done a lot of reading, especially reading reactions from writers of color about race relations in the U.S., which led to more thinking, this time about my own white, upper-middle-class privilege and what is required of me to make positive change in this world.

Hard on the heels of police violence and domestic terror, came news from Nice, a beautiful city I was lucky to visit once upon a time. So many stories of people reaching for hate and violence. So many deaths that it all begins to feel unbearable and all I want to do is sleep and eat junk food and watch endless loops of Law & Order and Midsomer Murders because in those shows, I find an outlet for my own sense of injustice (even when Jack McCoy loses), but also because I know that these are stories, fictions that reflect the part of humanity that reaches for hatred and violence, but still fictions (MM especially, where the "bad guy" always gets caught). When I'm watching, I don't have to confront the real-life human stories being played out (and often exploited) on today's media outlets.

And so I come again to this question: how can I, in my privilege, continue to reach for joy in light of these terrible tragedies?

For me, this question is complicated by the fact that "to reach for joy" for me means to be a poet. Aside from family and friends, the thing that most fulfills me in this world is writing poetry, but who needs more poems of place and a white woman untangling how gender shapes and defines her, how she resists and embraces womanhood? And who needs to know my publications and accomplishments, which also bring me joy? And more importantly, what right do I have to pursue my joy when there are so many others without that right or with obstacles at every path?

Answering these questions is touch and go here. Some days I succumb to turning away from the world (one of my many privileges) and allow the small waves of mini-depression to win. Some days, like today, I approach the desk and draft a poem or create a collage, and I find joy in that. Some days, I take up a book from my never-ending supply of "to-read" material and I lose myself in the viewpoint of another, engaging in empathy with writers similar to me and as dissimilar as can be. And I know in my heart that this is "winning" against the terror forces. I know in my head that continuing to reach for joy and continuing to engage in the world is the right step forward, but sometimes knowing that and acting on that are two very different things. Sometimes I lose.

I will say that I'm thankful that I have this summer self-ekphrastic project going and that this project requires a Summary Report (official, official) to be turned in to the University Research Council at UCA, which graciously supported me with a summer stipend in support of creating these collages and writing these poems (privilege!). I fear that if I didn't have a firm deadline that I would have abandoned this project in favor of turning away and letting myself be borne on the drift of an unencumbered summer (uhm...even more privilege!).

Finally, I'll say that for me the word "privilege" in this context is closely tied to heavy feelings of guilt. Here the Midwestern curse of my birth follows me, telling me that no matter how much I do to be a better citizen in this world, no matter how many students and readers I reach, extending the work of empathy & citizenship, it will never be enough, especially in light of what the world suffers.

So, here's to the days when we manage to reach for joy, when we are able to celebrate our accomplishments, while always holding the knowledge in our hearts about the hurts of the world, and always trying to shine a light where terror, in all its forms, attempts to reign.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Draft Process: When Instinct Rules the Hand

79º ~ a massive storm cell shuffled by within a few miles of us and we got nothing but some strong winds and dark skies (yes, I feel punished and left out)

First, I want to share a full collage. Today, I got to start a new journal, which means a few days ago, I collaged a new cover. Here it is, a bit spare compared to most of my others.

The draft process is really unchanged in terms of working with the collages directly; however, since this is a planned project, I've noticed something new today about the connections within the drafts. I've never actually set out to write a series of poems in a project like this. While Alchemy is a project book, that came about on its own and surprised me each day that another poem arrived in the series. As I started this self-ekphrastic project last month, I wondered if the poems would be organic, would they be "forced" by the images. I still wonder this, but am learning to live in the wonder and not worry about it too much.

Today, I spent my time with the images, made my selection, and then sat and looked at it, turning to my journal to scrawl out whatever lines jumped out at me from the looking. And, here's the interesting thing: line breaks and form.

The first two poems I wrote based on collages are left aligned. One is in couplets and the other in stanzas of varying length. Then, I began using varied indention instead of left-aligned stanzas (think Charles Wright although mine never seem to sprawl all the way across the page). I've been using that broken form with lots of white space for pacing for the last six drafts. So today, as I began on the 9th new draft, I started trying to make the lines that were coming into my head fit that form. It was a habit, and perhaps a reflection of the fragmented nature of collage. Also, the way I do collage is not really in the tradition of either filling "all" the space on the page or using just a few fragments to make a bold statement. I'm more clutter with negative space throughout (negative space in collage = indention and white space in the poem?). But back to the draft. Only when I turned to the computer did I realize that this draft needed to be left aligned.

What I find interesting is that while I'm often working out loud even as I handwrite the beginning lines, it isn't until I get those lines onto the screen that the full impact of the form comes through. It's only when I see the lines in black and white (and continue to read out loud in fits and starts, no longer embarrassed from hearing my own voice and my own poetic missteps) that I know the form of the poem (that is when working in free verse, as I usually do).

Today's poem, "When Instinct Rules the Hand" begins:

With her back turned to harbor
and hearth, the girl born crossing
thresholds has taken a thread to time

I really wanted words like "turned" and "crossing" and "thread" to be spread across the page, but the poem didn't work that way. This draft is about a girl taking control and determining her own direction, so the more musing, chaotic sprawl didn't work. As I'm always telling my students: form marries content (sometimes whether we want it to or not).

As always, I'm not revealing the complete collage for the day's draft, just as I don't provide the full draft of the poem. Here's a detail, though.

4" x 4.5" detail

Today's count: 17 collages; 9 drafts. Getting closer!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Process Notes: When the Border is a River Changing Course

85º feels like 94º ~ believe it or not, this is a "cool spell" to be replaced in coming days by 100+ ~ a good rain yesterday staved off the need to water ~ our yard is small, our water supply plentiful

With today's draft, I now have 15 collages and 7 drafts. Last week, I wrote about a "girl born at the edge / of a copper-colored river" but didn't have time to do process notes.

"Didn't have time to..." is a bit misleading as it is summer and I'm not teaching. However, I have spent a good deal of time in the past week working as the director of the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference (with a post to come soon on that). When not collaging, writing, or directing, I'm watching Cubs baseball. All y'all need to send up some good Cubbie vibes as we slumped over the last two weeks and are definitely limping into the All-Star break.

But, to poetry. Today, the "girl" grew up into the "woman born of wheat / and the brown thrasher's wing." Here's a problem. The bird in the collage is suggestive of a brown thrasher, but is probably a brown thrush. Still, I need it to be a thrasher for the sound and the rhythm, and for the implied verb, so a thrasher it is. I hope that if this project ever sees the light of day in publication that all my birding friends will forgive me.

3.5" x 6" detail
As I drafted, I was struck by the parallel between the collages and my usual word banks. Instead of having a collection of words rattling around on the page, I have images, but, unlike a word bank, there is a method to the images; they are not random, as I mean for the collages to also stand alone as art. However, as I scratched lines into my journal, I kept turning my head slightly back to the collage to let the images guide the poem's unfolding, in the same way I flip back to my word bank as a poem emerges.

In reading over today's draft, I was struck by its narrative nature. Don't get me wrong, it's a lyric narrative to be sure. I doubt anyone or anything could wring the lyric out of me, but there is definitely a "character" at the heart of the poem (the woman) and there is a clear setting and implied conflict.

So, I read over the other 6 drafts, and the lyric narrative is alive and well in each. There are two poems that do not feature girls or women, instead feature a part of the skeleton. But that piece of the skeleton takes on the role of the "character."

When I set out to do this project, I wanted the collages to guide the poems, and I wanted to create the collages on instinct and not on planned images. Now, however, with 15 collages of 20 done, and with only 2 that don't feature a girl or woman figure at the heart, I wonder how to remain in instinct as I create the last 5. Perhaps that is not possible, since I started drafting poems before I finished all 20 collages. This is a summer project and I wouldn't have had time to collage all 20 first and still draft 20 poems with the kind of time for mulling and ruminating that is required.

And that is an important note. It takes me 3 - 4 hours to create a 9" x 12" collage (not counting the hours and hours I spend clipping images), and I'm mulling and ruminating the entire time as I try out different images on the blank page. Then, on each day that there is drafting time, I flip through my portfolio and study each collage again. Those that aren't selected for the day's draft, continue to float around in my brain even when I'm not at the desk, so I'm mulling and ruminating, creating fodder for the next writing session. I do not believe that I could create a collage in the morning and draft a poem from it in the afternoon. The part of me that is able to generate poems, needs to sit and ponder.

And that's what this writing life is all about, giving our obsessions time and room to germinate, ready for the next writing session.