Monday, March 26, 2012

Redoing Workshops Redux


Last year around this time, I posted a couple entries that described a novel writing class I had taught in the fall of 2010. Writer and blogger Cathy Day was kind enough to contact me about that class and interview me for her blog, The Big Thing. After finishing that class it didn't take me long to realize that the novel is not the only long form underserved by the academy. How many students in poetry writing workshops, for instance, are encouraged--or, heaven help us,
required--to turn in long poems? I don't mean poems that run for 3 pages, but poems that run for 10 or 15 or 20. I've never sat in on such a class, and my MFA was in poetry writing. This despite the fact that the long poem for several decades now has been flourishing in the poetry writing world nearly as well as the novel has in the fiction writing world.

I blogged about the origins of my long poem class a couple months ago, so I won't say anything more about that for fear of repeating myself. But I do want to jot down a few notes about how I've organized my long poem workshops this semester. When I taught the novel writing class, I abandoned traditional workshops altogether in order to allow the emphasis of the class to stay on production, not analysis. I really wanted the students to be intent on completing drafts of their novels in one semester, and I knew that couldn't happen if they started fretting over the condition of some ten page section they might distribute to be workshopped. I didn't want them to overthink it, overworry it, become embarrassed, and then shut down. I didn't want them to realize the essential lunacy of what they were trying to accomplish No. They were going to finish these drafts, gol dern it. When I planned out my long poem class, I felt I had to adopt a somewhat similar workshopping strategy. After all, I was asking these students (no, that's not them in the above picture) to compose four poems, each of a length between 8 and 15 pages. Maybe that doesn't sound like much, but try telling an undergraduate who has never written a poem longer than a page that he or she must crank out an 8-pager. And not just one 8-pager but four. See how quickly the student turns pale. (This actually happened on the first night of class.) To enable them time and space to compose these long poems, I turned over half the class time each week to writing. Now, composing thirty or so pages of poetry is not quite the same challenge as composing a 55,000 word novel, but I think my students have appreciated, and made good use of, the amount of time we've spent writing this semester.

But, similar to the novel writing class, I wanted to afford the students some peer feedback while they were drafting. I didn't want them to fret over a whole class workshop, but I didn't want them to feel that they were composing in a vacuum. So I put them in small groups (four people max), groups that have met periodically over the course of the semester, the last time will be this week. If we had stopped to perform whole class workshops on each of the long poems, we would probably be somewhere on poem #2 right now, not poem #4. So for the sake of production, these groups have been very useful. But, of course, not every group of students will be as active and as helpful commentators as others. I put myself in one group--I am composing four poems too--and I actively contribute to my group's discussions, but at the same time I am monitoring other discussons around the room. The discussions flag too early too often, and the last couple of weeks my group has been still in the middle of our discussions while the rest of the room is done and sitting there, vaguely bored, staring at us. I know some of the students wish I were providing feedback to them every step of the way, and not just to the one peer group. This is to say that I know my solution is an imperfect, jerry-rigged one, but it's done what it's supposed to: kept the students from freaking out. Kept them writing. (And, maybe too, I want to free them from the tyranny of feedback lust.)

However, I haven't just borrowed my novel-writing strategy lock, stock, and barrel. I've constructed a kind of combination of that approach with my usual workshop approach. What this means is that the week after next we will begin whole class workshops. From the beginning, I wanted to afford the students the opportunity to use each 8-15 page assignment as a section of a much longer (32-60 page) poem. I almost regret that I didn't insist that they all do this (the way I insisted, last year, that all my students start on fresh novels, not work on already drafted ones). And I wanted those students to be done drafting their 32-60 page poems before the whole class got their grubby little, critiquing, weakness-finding paws on them.

But as of now, all four assignments are done. Starting the week after next, for four successive weeks, each group will be whole-class workshopped. How I've decided to do this is to have some one person in that week's group--someone other than the author--set up the class discussion of a poem with a ten mintue or so explanation of the history of the poem's composition: what the student was trying to accomplish, what has been gleaned from the small group discussions. Using these introductions as a framework, the whole class will then begin to discuss that student's long poem, hopefully with a more informed and senstive ear. (Btw, to make room for these workshops I threw out my original idea, which was to have each student present on the longer work by some professional poet. While such presentations surely have merit, I realized that the students could just as easily present on each other's work, which seemed closer to the point of a workshop class.)

I can tell my students are anxious about these whole class discussions. But I am hoping, and expecting, that it will create a nice sense of closure for what has been, for most of them, a rather unusual poetry writing class. I'll let you all know!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Keeping my characters talking


It's a whirlwind writing semester for me, as I bounce back and forth between writing fiction and poetry and trying to simultaneously market two novels and a collection of stories. Well, maybe "market" is a loaded word when it comes to the story collection, Island Fog. I've been editing it again recently and have submitted it to a couple of contests. I like the historical fictions I've written since last summer and added to the first half of the book. It's on account of these fictions that I've remade the book and am excited again about finding a readership for it. (I wrote about this in a previous post, I know.) But, like all historical fictions, this group of stories does raise various questions about what I can and am "allowed" to do. I was confronting some of these questions the other day when I looked over one story called "King Philip's War," set in 1823. The two key characters in the story are boys, one twelve years old and the other ten. The older boy is caucasian of English descent; the younger is a mixed-race child, half Wampanoag and half Irish. They live on a relatively deserted part of Nantucket island, and thus the two are more friends by necessity than choice.

It's a somewhat dialogue heavy story, at least compared to the other historical fictions in the collection. And this raises the complicated question of how a writer can effectively mimic the speech habits of an earlier era. I think this is one of the hardest aspects of composing historical fiction, one in which a writer, if he allows himself or herself to, can feel very straightjacketed. The "rules" for writing exposition--at least the practices I follow for myself--seem fairly straightforward: try to name things as they would have been named at the time; avoid contemporary slang or any expression that sounds too much of our own time; avoid blatantly anachronistic technical or medical knowledge; be true to attitudes that would have prevalent in the era, while recognizing that just as in our own time different people will different opinions. Beyond that, when writing exposition I simply try to compose good sentences. For a twenty-first century author to try to directly imitate the written English of the 1700s, let's say, or 1452, is, in my opinion, to risk something that comes across as forced and phony--and thus not alive. (What written English to use to suggest the written version of a non-English language from long ago is a whole other question.)

When writing dialogue, the matter gets more compicated, but the issues are similar. The characters ought to sound like they could exist in the given time period, but they can't sound like stick figures either. And the latter, to be frank, is the bigger issue, in my opinion. Some authors, like Geraldine Brooks in Caleb's Crossing, try to make the speech of her characters sound like what she imagines 17th century New Englanders might actually have sounded like. This might seem like a self-evident strategy to employ in writing historical fiction, but it's never a straightforward matter, because if one is writing about an era prior to the invention of sound recording, one's decisions about what spoken language sounded like is inevitably based on written language. And then, of course, one must ask, Who's written language? It gets fairly dicey fairly fast. Imagine if someone in the future made decisions about how we all talked in 2012 based solely on our written language, or only on the written language of a minority of the population. Now, this isn't to say that a historian or linguist or creative writer can't locate written documents that might reasonably suggest how some people talked in a given era--I know there are documents out there that linguists rely on--but, even then, if you base your dialogue strictly on what can be found in such sources, you are acting more as the copyist than the writer. In my opinion. Will your characters be able to say what they need to say, and more importantly, will their speech sound alive to your readers' ears--as alive as speech sounded to real speakers back in the real time--or will it sound stereotyped? I bet that if one conducted a study of historical fictions from various decades or centuries one would find that the "historical" speech of the fictional characters comes relatively close to the sound of speech in the era when the book was written. There's a reason for that. We don't want our characters to sound like--or be--stereotypes. Ever. Stereotyping means a character's--and a book's--death.

So what I decided, finally, to do with my two Nantucket boys is to allow them to sound incompletely of the 19th century. I've denuded their speech of any modern terms or slang, of course, and I took away some of the many contractions I originally inserted. But I also left several contractions. Because to my ears and my readers' ears, characters that speak without contractions will sound stultified, overtly mannered--and neither of these boys are mannered people. Even if their speech is not very accurate to the time; it's accurate to their character. And that's what I've decided is more important.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

AWP Day 3 (Haiku in the hall)


Well, the conference is over. All that's left now is thousands of leftover flyers advertising literary journals and last night's off site literary/drinking events. And the occasional wine bottle stranded in a sitting area in front of an elevator. Most conference goers, if they haven't left yet, will be on their way this morning: driving or catching a plane.

Yesterday was a chilly, blowy, and even snowy day in Chicago. I got out of the basement for one session but spent many hours again in the bookfair. UCA's table did a brisk business, especially after we slashed the price of Toad Suck Review in half. Ken Waldman, Alaskan fiddler-poet and tireless self-promoter, came around with his fiddle and his backpack full of free Waldman CDs and poetry books. The day before I'd gotten his "Sonnets from the 43rd Presidency" (that's George W., folks) so yesterday I wanted to hear him fiddle. He claimed to be looking for a good place to set up, but he never really did. Davis Schneiderman was in the hall, dressed in his body covering white lyrca costume to advertise his blank book Blank, but I never saw him in costume only street dress. He kindly showed me a picture someone had taken of him in costume. In the afternoon, I walked a cold five blocks to the Palmer House to hear a session on long poems. While it was good, I guess, to grab some fresh air, the session was disappointing. The panelists were fine poets all, and a few of their favorite long poems were discussed, but there was not as much discussion of their own processes, and reasons for, creating long poems as I would have liked. And there was no talk of teaching the long poem in a writing workshop. (Maybe that would be asking too much.) Late day and late conference sessions do tend to disappoint as a rule. I think because all involved, both audience and panelists, are brain dead. So I can't really hold it against these folks. On the whole, from the program I saw and the reports I heard, this conference's sessions were better than average.

A few random notes from Day 3:

1) "Magazine on a postcard" the sign announced, and that's exactly what Hoot magazine is. Each edition is a single poem or short short printed on a postcard with background art or photography. Gorgeous stuff, actually. 2) An editor from a journal for sports poetry came around handing out spongy faux-baseballs with the URL of the magazine printed on it. Cute idea, but because of the odd shape I couldn't easily slip the ball in with the rest of my stuff and I ended up leaving it behind. Now I can't remember the journal's name. 3) In the last day many journals start looking for ways to dump their excess products. Some journals use lagniappes. Toad Suck Review gave away a free collector's item issue of Exquisite Corpse Annual for each purchase of TSR. Another journal found a more direct pitch. A small (airplane size) bottle of wine with each purchase! The question is: Did they just happen to have the wine around or did they actually buy it to use as a promo? 4) It wasn't even that far into the day when someone came on the overhead speakers and announced that no alcohol should be consumed in the bookfair. Now I wonder why that announcement came on yesterday but not Thursday or Friday? Because on Saturday, per tradition, AWP lets the general pubic into the bookfair? Because the tempation to celebrate is stronger on the last day? I can tell you that as I left the hall yesterday, the good and obviously tired folks from 32 poems magazine had quite a large bottle of red open in front of them. Cheers, guys. 5) Former UCA student and recent Roosevelt University MFA grad Heather Cox recommended Featherproof Books to me, specifically the short story collection The Universe in Miniature in Miniature by Patrick Sommerville. It is, she said, her favorite story collection ever. I trust Heather, so I bought it, fortunately at a discount.

My New Year's resolution this year (I almost never make them) was to write creatively every day, even if that only means 5 minutes of hurriedly scrawled poetry. Well, at this conference, hurriedly scrawled poetry is what I had to rely on. But I made it a project, which made it fun. In occasional pauses at the bookfair table I started scratching out short observational poems. Without my even trying to, these poems wanted to become, and thus did become haiku. (No, I did not bother--at least not yet--with counting syllables. I think that's asking a bit much.) So among all the other stuff I'm carting home, one item will be a couple pages of bookfair haiku. If nothing else, they kept my resolution intact!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

AWP Day 2 (Bookfair busyness)


Sitting at the UCA table in the AWP bookfair you can certainly feel the record size of the conference. The browsers came in waves yesterday, especially after 11:00 or so. Today the room(s) should be even more jammed, given that conference allows the general public to access the bookfair on the last day. Many people who came by our table were taken by the name of our journal, Toad Suck Review, and about hundred times over we had to explain that Toad Suck is not just a quirky title but a real place name in Central Arkansas, not far from where the journal is produced. And of course we recounted the story behind the place name. Centuries ago, ferry boat captains used to dock at that spot on the Arkansas river, head into the local bars, and then drink so much that "swelled up like toads," or in other words, they became "toad suck drunk." The story, apparently a true one, always gets a laugh and a smile, if not a sale. But sales aren't the only point of being here; national exposure is actually more important, especially now that the journal is affiliated with a brand new MFA program, a program that has not even assembled its first class of students. We're actually hoping that being here at AWP leads to more applicants for that first class.

While I did not attend any sessions yesterday, I did browse the other tables at the bookfair, just as I did on Thursday, and uncovered some sweet finds. One small press called Scout Books publishes pocket sized, hand illustrated versions of classic short stories like "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "To Build a Fire." I was excited to find them, since a former student of mine, Gus Carlson, is a superb illustrator and enjoys drawing pictures to accompany the stories he writes. He seems an ideal candidate to illustrate one of their later books. I told them this, and they seemed interested. (Now I have to tell Gus.) Some interesting finds also came to our table. One fellow was passing around postcards for a web site called Instafiction, which posts one link each day to a short story posted on line. It can be any kind of story anywhere on the net. Sounds like a fun idea, and possibly a way of giving my fiction writing students an eccentric, ever changing textbook. (I'm sure they'd appreciate the free price tag.) Later, a young, kind-looking middle eastern fellow came around asking if I knew of any international students who were good writers. Yes, in fact, I do, I said. Apparently, Notre Dame University is assembling a collection of stories written in English by foreign students, and after publishing this collection--I'm not even sure what that means exactly--they will host a reading on their campus. I mentioned that the student I had in mind was Russian. He seemed a little befuddled by this. He said that if he selected my Russian student's story he also have to find a Russian poet and songwriter and theatrical performer(s). It wasn't clear to me why one good short story wasn't enough for his venture, but the guy walked off before I could get a full explanation. Our neighbors in the bookfair room are from a New York journal called First Inkling. They are noteworthy on several counts. First, the journal only publishes student writing, be that graduate or undergraduate. Second, they actually pay money to their contributors. Third, they've got a great attitude. Students do a considerable amount of work for the journal. I mean real, experientially valuable work. They edit the content; they interview writers for profiles that the journal publishes; they write grants; they organize literary events. That's a magazine that respects the intelligence of its students--freshmen and sophomores in college, no less--and in return gets great work from them. If you're a student, sent First Inkling some fiction, nonfiction, or poetry to look at. If you're a teacher, spread the word.

After the bookfair ended, the second big business of the day started: a reception honoring our new MFA program and the release of Toad Suck Review #2. The event got off to a rough start when we arrived a half-hour ahead of time to find that the hotel staff had set up only three card tables, a modest serving of chips and dip, and a water cooler. We'd been telling everyone about this reception--and we'd been promising "food and drink." Apparently, the Hilton Chicago staff was merely following instructions given on the work order. So we flew into action, begging them for several more tables and chairs and for a cash bar. At first it appeared that no bartender would be available, but a manager appeared moments later to say that, yes, they did indeed have someone. Whew. A bar was wheeled a bit later, just in time for the start of the event. It all went off well, although my wife and I felt obliged to buy one round of drinks for the (21 or older) students to whom we'd promised food and drink. (Many thanks, by the way, to the Hilton Chicago staff for being so helpful and so patient with us. They were truly superb and truly professional.) A representative from AWP came around to the recepton, kindly welcoming our program to the organization; several friends of TSR wandered in, and finally, around 7:30 we began a short reading featuring five contributors to the journal. They all read exceptionally well and showed off the quality of issue #2. Afterwards, we invited some current and former students up to our suite where we caught up and shared UCA stories. It was a late, but wonderful evening.

Now it's off to day #3. One session looks promising, and will get me out of the bookfair for an hour or so: a session on the long poem. Since this semester I'm teaching a course on this form, I figure I better go and hear what is said about it.

Friday, March 2, 2012

AWP Day 1 (10,000 stories)


Here I am at the biggest AWP ever, a scary thought given what a monster the conference always is. This year we've completely taken over not one but two landmark hotels in downtown Chicago, to say nothing of all the conference goers who are staying in other hotels throughout the city or with friends--and that's a considerable number, at least based on one idiosyncratic sample: the people I've talked to. You know AWP is in town when poetry is being broadcast in the elevators, when wine is flowing like tap water, when not businessmen but creative writing teachers occupy the fancy end-of-hallway suites at the Hilton Chicago (yes, we actually got one, by some strange turns of events), when almost everyone you pass in the street looks between 25 and 35 years old and is carrying the signature white canvas bag with red straps as well as a look of quiet, elevated intensity. True story. I was walking down the sidewalk to a breakfast place yesterday morning and happened to pass two women. One woman clearly had the other pinned, talking in a loud, aggressive voice only inches from her face, her hands cutting arcs through the air for emphasis. I came closer, close enough to hear. What was the first woman yelling about? City corruption? The price of gas? The job situation? Hardly. She was describing an exercise she uses in her poetry writing class! How many times do you hear that walking down a city street at 8:00 in the morning?

Welcome to my updates from AWP 2012. It's a different conference for me this year. Normally, my university extends some (rather limited) travel funds with the idea that I go to sessions that will inform my teaching. And I do. Some years my head is so full of session talk there's barely room for a stray thought. This year, however, I received funds to present in a session and to man UCA's bookfair table. We're promoting both our new MFA program, the Arkansas Writers MFA Workshop, and Toad Suck Review, our national literary magazine. This is just to say that I won't be wandering the session hallways as much this year and any report I offer from AWP can't pretend to be comprehensive, just one conference goer's conference story. One of 10,000 such stories being written this weekend.

Yesterday I went to two sessions. My own session, about the value of undergraduate creative writing exchanges, was put in an unncessarily large room, but the crowd was respectable and very interested in the subject. A few of them came up to us afterward and said how thoroughly they enjoyed the session, which was very gratifying. I know how thoroughly unenjoyable some AWP sessions can be, and so as we were talking I kept wondering how we and what we were saying was being received. The other session I attended was about novel writing workshops in MFA programs: how many are actually taught, how they are taught, how they might be better taught. It was a very crowded session with a passionately interested audience. Clearly the subject mattered greatly to them: graduate students who would love to write novels for their MFA theses but currently get very little support for doing so from their workshop classes. Run by Cathy Day, that invaluable agitator for allowing longer forms in workshop classes, it was a fasicnating session, both pragmatic and inspiring. It's fascinating to see the extent to which the idea of a novel writing class has caught on recently. I remember attending a session on the novel writing workshop at the 2005 AWP in Vancouver. The session was run by a British writing program, the one at Bath Spa University, and it seemed like such a novelty. I know most of the American audience members for the session were completely befuddled by the idea. Now, seven years later, novel writing workshops are popping up everywhere, and taught in drastically different ways, and not always in beneficial ways. (I heard some really bizarre anecdotes in the session yesterday.) It's a fertile, exciting time for the Novel Writing Workshop. There's no one fixed pedagogy and there's an awful lot of experimenting going on, mostly by committed, inventive teachers who simply want to give their students a chance to work on novel inside the program curriculum not outside it, as if almost always the case.

The rest of the day I hung out in the bookfair. I saw many of the magazines and programs profiled that I always see profiled at AWP, along with some quirky new ones. I bought the new book of poems by Megan Kaminski, a writer who teaches at the University of Kansas and who introduced UCA to the idea of the undergraduate creative writing exchange. Her book is called Desiring Map (Coconut Books). I also happened upon an enthusiastic indie press called Write Bloody. Among the books they were selling was a volume of zombie poetry. I had to

laugh--and I had to buy it. I know so many people--students, former students, colleagues--who truly get a kick out of all things zombie. Not sure what that says about our times. The book, by the way, features some very serious poems. It was a fun time chatting with folks who came by our table and visiting with folks at other tables. We sold some TSRs and talked up our new MFA. I also ran into several old friends and colleagues, which always happens at AWP, but I will have to talk about that phenomenon in another post, as this one has already gone on too long.