Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Off to AWP


I'm not there yet, but I soon will be on my way. Tonight--as in late tonight--I will hop on an Amtrak train at the station in Little Rock, Arkansas and take that train to Chicago, the site of this year's AWP conference. AWP is always a wonder--and a madhouse. I've blogged about this before. The largest creative writing conference in the world, it is also the most maddening and perhaps the most depressing. My high expectations for certain sessions always seem to end in disappointment, and with so many many many writers and aspiring writers around, the endless market talk--who's trying to sell what to whom--can become disheartening. In certain quarters of the conference, there's a distinct smell of desperation. But AWP always brims with energy too, and a real, palpable optimism. And a real, palpable love for the written word. AWP is also an unequaled place to revisit old connections and forge new ones. It 's a place to see everyone you've ever known in your creative writing life and a few you've always hoped to know. (And maybe a few you wish you didn't know.) So it's not really a conference one can miss.

This year, I have extra incentives to attend AWP. For one, I am part of a panel on creative writing exchanges; that is, the growing phenomenon of undergraduates at different universities traveling to each others' campuses to give readings, attend readings, and--that's right--forge connections. It's a great idea. My students had a wonderful time exchanging with the University of Kansas last year, and this year we are in the middle of a so-far-successful exchange with Auburn University. (They just came to Arkansas; we go there in April.) So I'm excited to talk about, and promote, the idea of these exchanges. It's also my very first AWP panel presentation! Second, and more importantly, I'm there to represent Toad Suck Review at the giant AWP bookfair. As many people will tell you, the bookfair is probably the most useful aspect of any AWP conference. Just by walking around, a writer can learn about hundreds of literary magazines, small presses, and graduate programs. I've spent many a valuable minute browsing the bookfair, talking with editors and readers from various journals and presses. Now I get to take a turn on the other side of the table, talking up Toad Suck Review. I serve as Associate Editor of the magazine, and I can honestly say it's a terrific literary endeavor. Not only is it beautiful, but it's full of lots of provocative writing, from both well knowns and unknowns. I'm flat out excited to tell people about this Issue #2 that I, along with editor-in-chief Mark Spitzer, worked so hard on. Hopefully, we'll sell a few copies too.

I hope to put up a few posts about the conference while I'm there, as I have in the past. So keep tuned--and wish me luck!

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Power of Social Media


You might think it's odd for someone who makes a habit of writing blog posts to wonder at the power of social media. Now, blogging is not quite social media; a blog is about a good deal more than making and maintaining social connections. As blogger Ben Davis said yesterday when he visited my campus for a literary festival featuring Arkansas writers, a blog isn't about keeping a diary of what you did in your day but "sharing your intellectual capital with the world." In fact, that is exactly how I view my own blog. That said, it's undeniable that one benefit of blogging is that you do make social connections, even if those connections are purely internet ones. You can be read, potentially, by anyone anywhere in the world. And you, conversely, are able to read the blogs of anyone else anywhere in the world. It's impossible for that give and take to not render real, direct, personal, and important connections. So it's no surprise that most everyone who blogs also uses Facebook and Twitter, along with a host of other media platforms.

True confession. I've never tweeted in my life. But I'm sure I should and will learn to do so. Because a recent development with my Van Gogh novel has proven to me, if ever I doubted it before, the power of social media. As you know if you read this blog, I recently concluded a mysterious and befuddling relationship with a New York agent who had worked closely with me on preparing my manuscript for publishers. My friend and UCA colleague Robin Becker (the author of the zombie novel Brains) tweeted about my post, sharing a link to it. What do you know, within hours an agent who follows Robin's tweets read my post and contacted me, asking me to send her a query. Of course I did, and at present the manuscript is in her kind, capable hands. I can never scorn Twitter again, which was precisely Robin's reaction when I told her that the agent had contacted me. You are right, Robin. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

So thanks to Robin. And thanks to Twitter. And let's (meaning me) never doubt social media again.

Little lagniappe: Given how nice one writer was to me, I feel I should pass on the good will and suggest that you check out the new blog of my colleague Garry Craig Powell. Garry Craig will soon be publishing a fascinating collection of short stories, called Stoning the Devil with Skylight Press, a British outfit. The book details the lives of both natives and expatriates living in the United Arab Emirates in the early 00s. On Garry Craig's blog, stoningthedevil.wordpress.com, he provides background about the settings for the stories, including pictures he took during his years living in the middle east. Cool stuff. Check it out.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Going long in verse


In the fall of 2010 I taught a course on novel writing to 15 undergraduates at the University of Central Arkansas. Or rather I was the faciliator of the semester space that allowed them all to finish first drafts of novels in the span of just a few months. It was a powerful, mind-opening experience, one that taught me a lot about the limitations of the conventional workshop and the need for our creative writing "system" to be open to allowing students to pursue longer forms. As I quickly found out, other teachers had been thinking the same thing and trying their own experiments in their own undergraduate classes. I heard from some of them in response to my blog entry. And I was honored to be interviewed on writer/teacher Cathy Day's own blog, The Big Thing.

The experience got me thinking about other ways in which we college teachers of creative writing could and should encourage our students in their ambitions to "go long." One of these ways, it occurred to me, was to run a course on the long poem, a form that is at least as discriminated against and underutilized in the workshop as is the novel. If you've ever taken a poetry writing workshop, ask yourself: Did anyone bring in anything longer than 2 pages? 1 page even? I'm betting the answer is no. Given my master's degree is in poetry writing (strange but true, I know), and given how much I enjoy working with students on poetry--despite my own current and longtime emphasis on writing fiction--I decided to propose a Topics in Creative Writing course that focused on the production of long poems.

Did that mean I would make the kids write epics? No, of course not. I decided, arbitrarily, that I would define "long poem" as anything 8 pages or more. And I decided to require students to submit four poems of 8-15 pages length. Additionally, if they wanted to make each assignement an installment on what would eventually be a 30-60 page poem, that was fine. So they kinda sorta could write an epic if they wanted to. Finding a textbook was tricky, but I did locate an actual long poem anthology (The New Long Poem Anthology from Talon), a book that features Canadian poets exclusively, many of them--let me say--doing very fine work. It's a superb text. Sniffing around the bookfair at AWP last year, I was shown a book called Collected Longer Poems by Hayden Carruth. I liked the idea of reading in depth one poet's lifelong engagement with the form combined with the survey quality that the anthology provides, so when book orders were due I ordered the Carruth book too.

Now the class is up and running, and the students are bravely taking up the challenge. I heard some rather big gulps when I told them they were going to have to write 8 page poems--more gulps than when I told my novel class they would finish novels in one semester--but we had our first "workshop" session the other night and everyone, every single student, posted his poems to the class web site days in advance, as required. And the peer group discussions were gratifyingly animated. (Btw, I put myself in a peer group and submitted an 8-pager of my own.) I've assigned them, I think, rather too much reading--given the necessarily slower pace of reading poetry--but so far they've kept up with that too. This class is still a work-in-progress, but I think it's going to turn out great. While some students are there simply because they feel comfortable with me as a teacher, others are there because they really are looking forward to the opportunity for engagement in the longer form, something that's never been encouraged or allowed them. Similar to my novel class, half our class time each week will given over to simple (or not so simple) composing, and I'm forgoing the usual workshopping routine for small peer group discussions. (I'll explain more about that on a later post.) It's brand new territory for me as a teacher, just as it is for them as students, but so far we're having a good time keeping our heads above water.

I will surely let you know how it goes.

Speaking of The Workshop: Anyone interested in an animated discussion on the pros and cons of traditional workshopping as well as MFA programs should check out this recent item in the Huffington Post.