Building a Writer Community

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From left to right: Chris Moyer, Eric McQuade, Matt Gallant, Dallas Allen, Ruth Baumann, and myself

On Friday night, I went to a release party for the Fall 2014 issue of The Pincha graduate-student run journal run out of the University of Memphis that I was a Managing Editor of back in 2012. Ruth Baumann, the Managing Editor of the Fall 2014 issue, had asked if I would read poems from the current issue and some of my own work, and it couldn’t have gone better.

I love being around writers, and it reminded me of the commonality we all have. I can walk into any group of writers and feel that same connection. We were all shaped with the same soul-kernel that helps make understanding one another so much easier. This sounds like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, but I spent the whole night just wandering from person to person, many of them strangers, and never felt more comfortable.

When I joined an MFA program, I didn’t think much about the importance of having a writing community. I read very little poetry, talked to no one in my day-to-day life about poetry, but I wrote it and wanted to write it more. I got into the University of Memphis MFA program by luck, it seems. I don’t think I wrote all that well nor did I really have a clear idea of what I wanted. All I knew is I felt this tug to apply to an MFA program, so I applied only to the Memphis program, and I somehow got in.

Throughout the course of the program, I developed very close friendships. We traded work. I called them when someone made a mean critique and I needed consolation that my work (or myself) was okay. We called each other to celebrate acceptances, offer condolences for rejections or close calls, give suggestions, hold one another accountable for submitting work. Writing is a hard life, and it’s also a mysteriously alien life to those who are not a part of it. I couldn’t rejoice with my husband that I’d gotten a personalized rejection from a great journal because his response was, “Why are we celebrating if you got rejected?” I couldn’t come up with any sort of metaphor or analogy that he could understand, and that’s okay. He’s not a writer, but I need my writer friends who do understand.

We took the picture up top at the release party. It’s me and other current and former editors for The Pinch. I knew two of the people pretty well, and the other three I had met or known by name only. By the end of the party, I got to talk to all of them and again felt that same sense of commonality, that “This is a hard road. Want to walk it together?” I even had more talks of “Want to trade work?” or “Let’s meet up!”

The thing is, if I hadn’t shown up to this event with other writers, I would have lost the opportunity to make new friends and continue to build my network that can help me get through what I’m doing now: trying to get my book published. While an MFA helped me get that first writer community, I have to show up, I have to be open and willing to engage, and I have to keep carrying the love of all things literary.

So…I’m in Spain

Richard Tillinghast, in his interview with The Pinch for the Spring 2012 issue, wrote that there is an intoxication that sets in when you visit a country for the first time. You’re amazed by the differences: the food, the architecture, the people, the languages. Those differences you see both help inform how you experience the place you’re in, while also giving you a different perspective on where you’ve come from. He said keeping a running journal as you’re walking around, jotting down thoughts, things, people, etc. you see, can read a little like poetry.

After writing a whole post on why writers should travel, I’m now practicing what I’m preached by staying a month in Spain for a creative writing study abroad program. I arrived in Madrid on June 1st, stayed there until June 3rd, and then took a train to Alicante, where I’ll be until June 28th.

Writing so far has been difficult. I’m very much out of my element. Writing worked best for me at 7 in the morning, coffee in hand. In Madrid, I had to first adjust to jetlag (which took a couple of days), and then I simply had no time because I had a limited window of time in the city and I HAD to run around and see everything (Best thing I saw: Picasso’s “Guernica.” Wow.).

Now, I’ve been in Alicante two days, and the class started yesterday. We have our first writing “assignment” due tomorrow, and we’ll see if something comes up. Spain works on a different set of time. They eat dinner late and wake up later, so 7 in the morning wouldn’t really work for me when we eat dinner at 8:30/9 at night. My host family’s home also only has WiFi in their living room, which means I’m around people or the TV is on whenever I’d be writing. I also don’t speak any Spanish, so it’s been hard for me to try to communicate with my host family, which is a really strange experience. Hopefully, I’ll pick up the language quickly.

I think I just need to fight against my conceptions of where I can be creative and Just.Be.Creative (this sounds like a bad name for a perfume…). This same experience happened when I was in Greece last year. I ended up jotting some things down and reading a lot, but I couldn’t write while I was there. Thankfully, the experiences soaked in and turned into some pieces later.

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In other news, I came here on a high of good news. MayDay Magazine accepted my poem, “The Family Pet” (which I unfortunately don’t have a draft process for). Front Porch Journal which I’ve been wanting to get into for some time now, e-mailed me to tell me they really liked some of my work that had been picked up by other journals and asked me to send in more ASAP. New York Quarterly also e-mailed me to tell me they had forwarded one or more of my poems  to the second tier editorial board for further consideration.

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I feel like I’m in the right place right now, and I’m curious to see what all will happen while I’m here. Have any of you traveled? What have been your experiences with it as it relates to your writing?

Why you should submit to literary contests

After Calyx threw their two-cents in, I decided to throw in mine as well.

As a writer and teacher, my money is in short supply. I submit to literary journals for a love of contributor copies and a blind, finger-crossing hope that someone might pay me as well. I, of course, don’t live off my writing. I teach to pay my rent. I write to stay sane. I submit because what I ultimately want to do in life is write.

Contests, with their $15 and $20 reading fees, seem like an extravagance. I, for one, have submitted to seven contests in my life, five that had reading fees. I’ve won none of them and only been a semifinalist for one.

Why should you ever submit to literary contests?

  • You could win AND/OR get published. We all submit our work to journals with the wild hope that we’ll be accepted. We can submit to contests with the same abandon. We can have confidence enough in our writing to believe that it’s worth sending out. For The Pinch‘s literary contest, if you are a first place winner in your genre, your work will be published in an upcoming issue. If you are a second or third place winner, your work might be. Also, all work submitted (even if you don’t win) is considered for publication. So, you could win and, even if you don’t, you could get published. Stu Dearnley, the third place fiction winner of the 2011 Pinch contest, got his first ever publication from winning a contest. We have also published work from other contestants that did not win.
  • You could receive critical attention from a great poet/writer/essayist. In terms of The Pinch‘s literary contest, all of the entries are read by the staff and then we, as a staff, decide which ten or fifteen finalists to send onto the bigwig genre judge. If someone on our staff really likes your work, your work might get published or you might get solicited to send us more work. If you are one of the lucky finalists (as in, we, as a staff, decide to send your work onto the bigwig), your work will receive personal attention from that bigwig. If you are selected as a (first, second, or third place) winner, he or she will know your name and write something special about your work. An amazing poet writing something amazing about a poem of mine would be…amazing.
  • You could win $$$. Many contests boast a wonderful $1000 or $1500 prize. That could help with attending a residency, submitting journals that ask for a $3 reading fee with each submission, or sending that manuscript out.
  • Your reading fee helps support the journal that hosts the contest. This point is really important. Since I’ve managed a literary journal, I know firsthand how important these contests can be for ensuring a journal can produce future issues, purchase merchandise to sell, host release parties, host readings, etc. Every year, The Pinch contest is its lifeblood to ensuring we can keep producing a great product, as well as hosting great events for our dedicated admirers to attend.
  • You get something. You more often than not receive at least one issue of the journal, and many times, you receive two issues, a full year of a journal you already adore!

I realize many of us writers aren’t rolling in money (unless we a.) won the lottery or inherited a lot of money, b.) have a fancy job, or c.)   married up), but by submitting to contests, you are not only taking your writing seriously, but also supporting the journals that help keep what we love so much alive and well.

Being a woman editor

After my earlier post about being a woman poet, I thought about my role as a woman editor.

Vida tirelessly counts the rates of publication between men and women in some of the most prestigious literary venues. Their 2011 count, located here, shows a huge disparity. Regardless of the potential reasons (“women write less,” “women submit less,” “women don’t write as well as men,” “editors purposefully choose work from more men than women”), the numbers are startling.

For the Spring 2012 issue of The Pinch which I was Managing Editor for, we published poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction from fourteen women and fifteen men. We published twenty-three pieces from women and seventeen pieces from men (this includes if we accepted two or more poems, fiction stories, or creative nonfiction essays from one writer). Of the art and photography we accepted, all were from men.

Of the ten major editor positions for the staff at the time (fall 2011), six were held by women (editor-in-chief, managing editor, assistant managing editor, senior fiction editor, fiction editor, and creative nonfiction editor). The strongest positions in the journal (editor-in-chief, managing and assistant managing editor) were all held by women. While we never looked at or discussed a work on the basis of the gender of its author, we did publish work from nearly as many women as men, and that somehow must be connected to the fact that many of us were and are strong women writers ourselves.

Other journals circumvent the subjective world of publishing by having only women editors and accepting work from only women writers. Many are listed here, and Southern Women’s Review should be included on that list as well. I have mixed feelings about “women” journals mostly because they are undervalued and underappreciated. No women’s-only journal has the same prestige as The New Yorker.

What are your thoughts?

Being a woman poet

In honor of Adrienne Rich’s very recent passing, I started reading her collection of essays titled On Lies, Secrets and Silence, which happened to be on my MFA Comps Reading List. When my thesis adviser asked me if I had in mind any questions I wanted to be asked, I suggested something about being a woman writing in a masculine tradition. I write a lot of violent narrative poetry, and my female predecessors are limited to poets like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Sharon Olds, and Adrienne Rich. My poetry itself really follows more the veins of work by Frost (such as “Out, Out–“) and James Dickey (though I was writing this way way before I ever read them).

In her essay titled “Anne Sexton: 1928-1974,” Rich writes, “We have had enough suicidal women poets, enough suicidal women, enough of self-destructiveness as the sole form of violence permitted to women.” Women destroy themselves through “self-trivialization, contempt for women, misplaced compassion, addiction.” “Self-trivialization”=not taking ourselves or our work seriously enough. Producing work that imitates that of men. Not seeking opportunities for ourselves that we would push others to do. “Contempt for women”=mistrusting other women. Believing women’s desires are secondary to those of men. “Misplaced compassion”=the example she gives is feeling sorry for the rapist instead of the woman who was raped. “Addiction”= addiction to “selfless, sacrificial love,” addiction to depression, drugs, or alcohol, addiction to male approval.

I applied Rich’s idea of women’s self-destructive attitudes to my own work, particularly my manuscript, Predator’s Tongue. One of my most violent poems is directed at the speaker’s mother. In many of my poems that deal with or mention mothers, the mother is absent (emotionally or physically), neglectful, and/or violent. Many of my female characters are passive, constrained by their relationships and their desires, paralyzed in inaction. Two poems that deal with molestation and rape are told from the perspective of the man. In one case, rather sympathetically.

As a “woman poet,” how do I navigate these strong veins of “self destruction”? In her essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” Rich writes of her struggles with finding her own voice and identity as a “woman writer,” while also trying to carry the load of a normal “woman” (taking care of a house and three children). For her, it was a journey. I’m surprised that my work in this manuscript fits so neatly into her ideas of women only being able to be violent against themselves. I’m encouraged, though, by the fact that much of this work is old, that a lot of my newer work doesn’t play into these same ideas of violence between and against women. My awareness of this now also encourages me to keep looking at the models I turn to for inspiration. Are they propagating messages I don’t want to appear in my own writing?

Rich says, “Every woman who writes is a survivor.” The female characters in Predator’s Tongue, despite being mostly passive, are survivors. The quote for my last section is “What matters is what’s left of us,” implying an evolution from trauma to a newly created wholeness.

How does your gender work in your own writing? Does it have a place or is it more subversive? If you’re a woman, do you relate to or rebel against Rich’s ideas of women’s self-destruction?