Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Guest Blogger: How I Read a Poetry Manuscript Submission, by Tom Lombardo


How I Read a Poetry Manuscript Submission

by Tom Lombardo
Poetry Series Editor
Press 53 www.press53.com


Slowly for the first 3 poems.

At Press 53, we ask for a sample of 10 poems for an open submission. If I solicit a sample personally, I will ask for 15-20 poems or more.

As poetry series editor for Press 53, I've developed a three tier reading style. In the first reading, I'm looking specifically at three keys: Diction, syntax, metaphor. If the submission lacks excitement in those three key areas, then I reject the submission. Usually, I know after a page if the poet is competent in those areas, but I will read onward regardless.

I love diction. As the building blocks of poetry, words must be carefully selected, much more carefully than in prose. I'm attracted to uncommon diction. I like to see concrete nouns and active verbs. I don't like overuse of verbs of the form "to be," except in exposition. They slow a poem's movement and pacing, and of course, that's when they come in handy, when you want to slow the movement and pacing. But "to be" overuse causes me to reject. Oh, yes, I do understand that some poems do not have action and are quiet poems of thoughtful reflection, and I make room for those, too. Overuse of adjectives and adverbs turns me quickly toward rejection—I believe that adjectives and adverbs undercut the imagistic beauty of poetry. Nouns and verbs create concrete images, not modifiers.

Regarding syntax—I feel the same way—I crave carefully constructed syntax. I look for something that is not prose syntax. Syntax is the smallest unit for the compression that indicates poetry to me, the blinking lights that say "Here is poetry! Read on!!" You would not believe the proportion of our submissions that I reject as abject prose. I often wonder how people can delude themselves by inserting line breaks into their prose and submitting it as poetry.

In this essay, "metaphor" stands for any trope, OK? It's easier to say metaphor than to say "metaphor, simile, synecdoche, metonymy, personification, synesthesia, allusion, irony, hyperbole, understatement, paradox, apostrophe, symbols." They're all metaphoric. Simply put, I look for language that moves the literal to the figurative, another hallmark of poetry.

If I arrive at the end of the submission's first page without goosebumps from the diction and syntax or if the language does not transport me to the figurative, then I know this submission wavers on the brink of rejection. However, I do read on, unlike some editors, because my mission at Press 53 is to discover new voices, and sometimes the voice is buried in poem 3 or 5 or 10. If I see nothing of my 3 keys by poem 4, then I start to read more quickly, scanning only for metaphor, and if I find one, I stop, and I start reading slowly again, maybe go back a few poems and re-read. In content analysis, that's called "stopping behavior." Metaphor stops me. Saves the submission from rejection for at least another poem or two.

If I like the sample submission after tier 1, then I rock back in my chair that squeaks and think about the stories. For me, story is the second tier of analysis. What story or stories has the poet told. Small stories or large stories, either one, but some level of story is important to me. Press 53 has no interest in abstract poems or the faddish, clever anti-story poems stylish in many American journals now. These too will pass. But story lives on. Story is granite. Poetry can be faddish, and trends in poetry—some lasting decades—may obscure good poets. Think of Emily Dickinson.

Here's the truth: The audience reigns supreme at Press 53 and other small presses. Not the poet. If the audience doesn't buy our books, we won't have a press next year to publish any poets at all. Arcane styles sell in academic circles. That generally means 200 copies or fewer. I'm looking for those kinds of poetry manuscripts, written by the kinds of poets who involve themselves in the sales of their collections. And I believe that good stories will move both Press 53 and the poet toward a higher sales level. To me, poetry with an  intriguing story will set the reader dreaming beyond the final line.

A third tier of my reading revolves around aspects of craft that include enjambments and sound, and then their combined effect on the lines of the poem. Why? Because those appeal to me as fundamental to poetry. Individual taste is my only defense for this. I'm the editor, so that's my prerogative. In this third reading, I ask: Are the line endings working well? If so, they show the skill of the poet. If not, then I must decide whether the poems might work with different enjambments, which interestingly takes me back to the diction. Good diction makes it possible to find new enjambments. If the enjambments are not working, but the submission appeals to me on other levels, I must decide whether it's worth my time and effort to edit and then to convince the poet to make suggested changes.

I also ask: Is the sound doing anything interesting? Sound can demonstrate a high level of sophistication in a poet. For me, sound goes beyond the most obvious rhyme, assonance, alliteration. I'm looking, actually listening, for the use of acoustic energy to create and release tension, and this occurs mostly in the vowels, wonderfully hidden, though it can also occur, more obviously, in the consonants. I also like to read lines that block sound at each end—walls to make sound reverberate in the emotion of that space—or perhaps the ends of each couplet or triplet or stanza. I also look for sound that creates mood or tone that supports the poem

Stop: I've decided not to provide samples as most blathering essayists would. This is a blog with a word-limit, which I will surely exceed, not a Poetry magazine article. I will note that Emily Dickinson's poems offer perfect examples for everything I have or will mention here. My favorite contemporary poets—the ones I keep going back to—are  Douglas Dunn, Simon Armitage, Satyendra Srivastava, current British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and a host of Eastern European poets, only two of whom are Nobel Laureates. American poets? Contemporary? Too many to name, perhaps. However, I find many well-known contemporary American poets impoverish the story part of their craft, but I will mention current North Carolina Poet Laureate Cathy Smith Bowers as a particular favorite of mine with great stories, terrific metaphor, strong diction and syntax.

I have but one pet peeve: Rumi epigraphs. Automatic rejection. A particularly galling fad. In 2009 and 2010, every fourth submission had them. Call those "the Rumi years." The Rumi epigraphs seem to be going out of style more recently, probably because MFA programs stopped teaching him.

My greatest fear: I don't want to be an editor who would reject Emily Dickinson. In her era, Dickinson may have sold fewer than 10 books because her poetry operated on a plane perpendicular to the contemporary style. A century earlier, she may have been burned at the stake, even in Amherst, for writing verse inspired by Lucifer!  Dickinson's poetry did not come to light for decades and did not come to fame for decades more, which may mean that the rest of the poetry world caught up to her premature vision. She may be the greatest American poet. Sadly, good poets will go undiscovered in today's world of poetry. We have our fads and our styles and our preferences just as any other era. So, before I read submissions, I pray to the Muses: If this is Emily, don't let me reject her.

Tom Lombardo: Poetry Series Editor
Tom Lombardo of Atlanta, GA, is editor of The Tom Lombardo Poetry Selections for Press 53. Tom actively reads journals, magazines, ezines, and anthologies in search of poets to bring to Press 53 by way of The Tom Lombardo Poetry Selection series. In 2008, Tom edited and published After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events (Sante Lucia Books), which features 152 poems by 115 poets from 15 countries. Tom is a widely published and respected poet, and is a graduate of the MFA program at Queens University in Charlotte, NC. His mission is to bring 4-6 poetry collections to Press 53 each year. To learn more about Tom and After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events visit www.poetryofrecovery.com. Contact Tom at Tom@Press53.com.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The New Yorker: "The Musical Brain" by César Aira


December 5, 2011: “The Musical Brain” by César Aira

Chris Andrews, translator


The story begins normally—a family is out to dinner at a hotel restaurant. But then the oddities begin to pile up: a possible book drive being conducted in the restaurant; a visit next door to the theater to see the “musical brain”; a visit to the circus, recently rocked by a scandal involving twin dwarves and the dwarf wife of one of them; and then the bizarre incidents in the theater involving the “musical brain” and the dwarves, AND the former head librarian and school headmistress, who can’t be who the narrator recalls she is.

Fortunately we have the Q&A with the Translator to confirm that this pattern is not unusual for this author:


"But as anyone who has read him knows, the 'correctness' is only syntactic: his sentences are well formed, as the linguists say, but his stories and his books are, well . . . deformed, swerving wildly, jumping from one kind of fiction to another, as in 'The Musical Brain.'"


Good to know. As for what it means . . . the bizarre incidents coincide with the founding of the town library, and so the egg we see at the end (laid by the dwarf and protected by the librarian) would seem to represent literacy, or possibly imagination, since the narrator's own imagination seems to have taken flight as a result of witnessing the events.


Or maybe it's just an egg.


In any case, it's an intriguing read. i'd be interested in seeing more of his work.

Interview with Kelly Kathleen Ferguson


Kelly Kathleen Ferguson’s book, My Life as Laura, was published two months ago by Press 53. Shortly thereafter, Ferguson posted an essay on the Hunger Mountain blog about her experience with promoting the book: Being My Own Book Publicist. The essay is one of the most complete I’ve seen on the subject of marketing, and well worth the read.

It begins: “Most writers I know have a distaste for self-promotion. Many of us have chosen to speak through the page for a reason. We want to be Oz, the Great and Terrible—but from behind the curtain. I remember those MFA dreams of New York City publishers who would sweep me away. These creatures would care for my Art, and manage all that distasteful book-peddling.”

Except it doesn’t work out that way.



I thought it would be fun to follow up with Kelly, and the result is this mini-interview:

CG: Kelly, your Hunger Mountain blog post was written in October. Your book has now been out for nearly two months. Have you learned any more about book marketing since then?

KKF: That it’s freaking exhausting? I think of Little House in the Big Woods where Laura and Mary would play with an inflated pig’s bladder, batting it back and forth so it wouldn’t touch the ground. My “internet presence” (quotes because it is so tenuous) requires constant maintenance. I blink and whatever momentum I’ve managed to gather goes splat.

I’m continuing to learn you can’t plan too far ahead for book reviews and readings. I thought I’d be out on the road promoting before Christmas and I’m still putting events together. I give myself a break in that with Press 53 I had no access to advance copies, so that limited what I could set up ahead of time.

One tactic I’ve added is to backtrack the press trails of authors working similar markets (Laura Ingalls Wilder books, for example). I Google to see where they are being reviewed and follow suit. Kakutani of The New York Times has yet to respond, but I have discovered some great blogs (such as this one!) run by people who write back, even if they don’t have time for a review. The online literary community runs deep. One book review blogger just now let me know that while she might not get around to my book for three months, she sent me links to five other websites that might be interested. 

I’ve also learned to investigate local writers’ groups. A colleague of mine gave me a few contacts and I’ve set up two readings/craft talks. No, I’m not the keynote at Bread Loaf, but I can drive less than an hour, receive a little honorarium (usually $50-$100), and reach an interested audience.

CG: Specifically, have you expanded your presence in independent bookstores? How’s that working out?

KKF: Um, not so well.  I’ve added one since that post. To be clear, it’s not that bookstores are shooting me down (only one has said “no” so far). I haven’t put much effort into asking.

It’s weird because my dream for so long was to go into bookstores and see my book, but Press 53 doesn’t provide distribution, so each and every placement is up to me. Every time I have to muster up this Oliver Twist plea, “Please sir, would you carry my book?”

That being said, querying independent bookstores remains on my to do list.

CG: You mention the Montana Festival of the Book in the blog post. Have you discovered other book festivals? And how does one find out about these things?

KKF: Basically, every state and most major cities have a festival, so then it’s a matter of targeting one that might want you to present. No one has yet to contact me, as I’m not enough of a name. I have my MFA from Montana, so I had a personal connection there, but I had to ask.  I am going to try and query a few for the future. (Again, remember that readers and presenters for these events are set up months in advance). For example, I’ll try to present at the North Carolina Writers’ Association Conference next year, since Press 53 runs a table every year and I lived in Durham for twenty years. My approach is to Google the festival website, find the email of the coordinator, send a polite email in which I mention any relevant connections, and attach my book cover and press release. It’s worked once so far!

CG: Have you connected with book clubs? How did that happen, and what was your experience? Is it something you recommend?

KKF: If I could connect with every book club ever I would do it. What’s better than having a group of people discuss your book? I mean, unless they are talking about how they didn’t care for it. So far My Life as Laura has been the topic two book clubs that I know of, both run by friends. I tried to Skype one but that failed so we had to go to speakerphone. Since my friend was there I felt naturally gabby.

CG: Have you done joint appearances with other authors? Is that something you recommend?

KKF: I’ve run a few readings here at Ohio University that are just as much informal parties as anything else. I picked people who I know are good readers and who I could trust to keep it short. All it takes is one person who overstays his or her stage time and the reading goes south. I’ve also been on a few conference panels with literature scholars who presented their critical work and I read. I wish there were more collaborations like that.

Come to think of it, most of my readings have been with at least one other person. The obvious benefit is that friends of all readers will attend. It also eases the pressure. There’s definitely a difference between being placed on a panel, versus organizing the reading yourself. I’ve been trying to put together an off site reading for AWP but three people canceled and I’m about to give up. Joint appearances are just like anything else involving other humans—amazing, frustrating, energizing, enervating, etc. I’m still new at this book promotion gig, but generally speaking I’m a people person, so in answer to the original question, yes, I recommend reading with other authors.

CG: What’s the single most important thing you’ve learned about book marketing?

KKF: That every day is Sadie Hawkins Day. (I trust dudes can translate the analogy). My fortune cookie wisdom is, “If you don’t ask, you won’t know, and have some treats handy for when you ask and they don’t answer, or worse.”


Sunday, November 27, 2011

VCCA: Mid-residency

Mid-residency, already? Afraid so. I have only one more week.

I can't say that I've been terribly efficient, but then I'm floundering a little with the new work. I'm calling my output so far a "pre-draft"; it's not really a first draft since I'm still figuring out what the story is and who the characters are. But I'm nearly done with this first phase, and may begin writing the actual first draft tomorrow. That will take some time, of course, and I'll be lucky if I can finish a chapter or two by the time I leave next Sunday.

Since last I reported, we've had Thanksgiving. We had a wonderful dinner with turkey and stuffing and various veggies, plus pumpkin pie for dessert. Before dinner, the composer Andrea Clearfield was kind enough to play a selection of classical pieces (a little Brahms, a little Debussy, a little Bolling), and after dinner many of the writers did a "sampler" reading. We each read for about 5 minutes, which I thought was a great way to get a taste of what everyone is doing. Since my current work isn't ready for sharing, I read the prologue to the novel I recently finished. It only takes about four minutes, and I think gives a good sense of that book.

On Friday evening we had a reading by Shari Motro, a law professor at University of Richmond. She's working on a memoir and read a very personal section. (Not all memoirs are as personal, it seems to me.)

On Saturday night a bunch of the fellows went to Rapunzel's Coffee & Books for a presentation/puppet show by another of our fellows, Katherine Fahey, but I chose to stay in and work.

The weather has been great, although a bit too warm for this time of year. I wouldn't mind if the coming week turned cooler.

The picture above is from the woods on the grounds, although it's a picture I took last year. Haven't been doing much photography this year, but maybe I'll make up for that in the next few days.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Holiday Deals: Books

Press 53 has a great deal for you! Check out the Holiday Specials page on the website to see some terrific book bundles they've put together. For example, get 5 short story collections (one of which could be In an Uncharted Country, by me) for just $53. Or 3 story collections PLUS 3 poetry collections for just $53. And there are other bundles available, as well.


Please take a look. There are some wonderful books included in this Holiday Special.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Tips for Writers: Reading Aloud

I'm at a residency this week at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and it provided the suggestion for today's tip, which is to read your work aloud.

There are several reasons to do this, applicable at different stages of the writing process. It is important to read your work aloud during the writing process. Writers who take language seriously must think about how words sound. It isn't enough to tell an exciting story. We must also be aware of the sounds of words, repetitions (intended and otherwise), and the rhythm of our sentences. Whether or not a reader will ultimately hear the words, these factors will affect the experience of reading them on the page, and we must take them into consideration. For me, that's part of the enjoyment of writing.

Then, at the proofreading stage, it's important to read work aloud because it helps to identify problems in punctuation, grammar, spelling, and other problems that might have been overlooked when the words on the page have become too familiar. I even advise composition students to do this--and these writers are little concerned with rhythm or euphony.

And then there is the stage when the work is being presented to the public, which happens frequently here at VCCA and also happens when writers are engaged in marketing the work. We often read the work aloud to an audience. And in that process, it's important read the work aloud in advance. To practice, in other words. the picture above is taken from a blog post called Reading Aloud Will Improve Your Delivery. And that's absolutely true. The readings here this week have mostly been very good. However, I've been to readings in the past that have been awful. (You might be interested in a short essay by Joe Mills on this subject: Dear Poet.) I once suggested to the director of a major writers' conference that he organize a seminar on giving public readings, but the idea was dismissed because, he said, "The work must exist on the page." Granted, of course. But then why do we give readings? And if we're going to give readings, we'd best not put our listeners to sleep.

Read your work aloud. It will help.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

VCCA: Residency Begins



I arrived at VCCA on Monday after several days at home of trying to catch up on various other responsibilities. Since I hadn’t been writing for that period, I struggled Monday afternoon to get back into the flow. But I did get some work done, and that felt good.

One of the great things—and one of the distractions—about being here, is that a few times a week we have presentations in the evenings by some of the residents. A fellow can skip them, which I do from time to time if I’m feeling pressed, but on my first night, Monday, I wanted to attend.

Two artists presented. The first was Jenny Krasner who showed images she has created and also read from a long manuscript she’s written about a trip to India she took recently. It’s got a lot of humor and a great voice, and it was fun to see the slide show of images at the same time as she read the chapter from the book.

The second was Olive Ayhens, a painter who works in watercolor and oil, and she showed slides of her work over a long period of time, showing many influences  and styles, as well as the many locations in which she has worked—San Francisco, New York, Spain, Brittany, various National Parks, and elsewhere.

Tuesday was my first full day, and I felt like I got a lot done, but in the evening I decided to keep going. I always feel bad about missing a presentation, so I didn’t hear Jerry Weinstein read, unfortunately.

Today, Wednesday, I got even more done, so this time I stayed in the residence for presentations by composer Andrea  Clearfield, who played a work in progress based on some extensive work she’s been doing in the Tibetan region of Northern Nepal, and writer Katey Schultz who read some flash fiction and story from a collection she’s working on about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s all good, and we’ve got a special Thanksgiving presentation on tap for tomorrow, with a lot of people reading very short pieces.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The New Yorker: "Leaving Maverly" by Alice Munro


November 28, 2011: “Leaving Maverly” by Alice Munro

Maybe I’m just not in the mood for a Munro story, but this one leaves me cold. Like many of her stories, this one covers several years—proving that short stories don’t have to focus on a short period of time. The problem with trying to fit a long period of time into a short story, however, is that it is difficult to achieve much depth. The reader is always skimming the surface, it seems to me, and unless the occasional dips into the water are sustained, the author risks losing the reader altogether. Which, for me, happened here.

The story is about Ray, the night policeman in a small town, and a young girl, Leah. The girl is from a very strict household—one in which the wife and children aren’t allowed to leave the house—but she is given permission by her father to take a job as ticket taker in a theater (as long as she doesn’t watch or even listen to the films). But she needs an escort to walk her home on Saturday nights, and Ray performs that duty. Ray, meanwhile, is married to Isabel, who left her husband to marry him. But she develops pericarditis and is often too weak to do anything. When Leah disappears, Ray joins the search, but the girl isn’t found because, in fact, she ran off and married the minister’s son.

And so on—Isabel gets sicker, Leah’s marriage goes bad, and eventually, years later, they meet again in the hospital in another city. And maybe they’ll get together, and maybe they won’t, but I don’t think I care. The story is so much on the surface that I don’t engage with any of the characters.

I’d be interested to know how others reacted to this one. I’m a fan of Munro, but not this story.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Book Review: Dispatches from the Peninsula by Chris Tharp



Chris Tharp

Signal 8 Press, 2011


I arrived in Seoul, South Korea, in early January, 1976, half a year after graduating from college. To say that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into would be an enormous understatement. But, to a large degree, that was the point. I had joined the Peace Corps—taking a leave from the graduate school program that was, at best, a feeble attempt to forestall real life. Like most Peace Corps Volunteers, I had mixed motives in signing up: I wanted to help people, sure; but I also wanted an adventure. I also didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I was buying time.

So we landed on a frigid morning, a group of twenty-five or so volunteers destined to work in “Higher Education English,” meaning that we would be teaching English as a Second Language to college students, most of whom were enrolled in English Education programs in their universities and colleges. Like my fellow volunteers, I knew no Korean, knew little about Korea, and had no teaching experience. Peace Corps remedied that with two months of intensive training—a full morning of Korean language studies in small groups (not to mention the language learning that occurred in the family homes that hosted us), and afternoons of lessons in both Korean culture and history and the rudiments of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). By the end of training, we were ready to head to our duty stations, in my case a provincial capital a hundred miles or so south of Seoul, into situations where there were no other foreigners and where English-speakers were few.

While the experience was not uniformly positive, those two years of Peace Corps service were extraordinary, and have shaped just about everything I have done since. They taught me about poverty, since Korea in the ´70s was still a very poor country. They taught me to cope with hardship. They also instilled me with an indelible fondness for Korea, and in the 35 years since I completed my service I have been back many times for business and pleasure, including a wonderful trip earlier this year with other former Peace Corps Volunteers.

So I was pleased when the opportunity came up recently to review Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea by an American English teacher in Korea. I relished the chance to share another American’s experience in Korea, updated by three decades. And for the most part I wasn’t disappointed. The writing is excellent, and the conversational tone is just right for this sort of memoir/travelogue. Plus, author Chris Tharp, as far as I can tell, gets the important stuff right—his digressions into Korean culture and history, his comments on contemporary politics and society, even his understanding of the Korean view of their country’s place in the world today, seem to me to be spot on, and are probably enlightening to readers who don’t know the country. It’s a fun read.

If there is disappointment here, it stems from the author’s limited experience in the country. Yes, he’s lived there six years, but he seems to have spent it almost entirely in Pusan (hanging out with other expats), with only brief forays into the surrounding countryside. His time spent with Koreans outside of the classroom seems to be confined to drinking sessions (or over-drinking sessions), which he seems to believe is the national pastime, and a succession of girlfriends. And there are omissions that I think might have presented a more complete picture of life in the Land of Morning Calm. Tharp says he doesn’t like visiting Buddhist Temples, but Buddhism has had an important impact on Korea, as have both animist religions and Christianity, both mentioned only in passing. Tharp addresses anti-Americanism but doesn’t discuss the role that the stationing of 30,000 American troops (42,000 when I lived there) on the peninsula has played in that sentiment. (In fairness, he does mention one incident involving an American soldier that inflamed public opinion, but the tensions run much deeper.) And while Tharp does talk about some regional rivalries in Korea, he doesn’t mention that these rivalries have their roots in the warring kingdoms that arose two thousand years ago, which also helps to put the separation of North and South Korea in context.

Tharp is part of what we might call the Anti-Peace Corps, the cadre of young native-English speakers drawn from all over the world who have descended on Korea to fill the demand for English teachers. In the ´70s, the Peace Corps met some of that demand at very little cost to the Koreans. But the Peace Corps left Korea in the ´80s—after the country reached middle-income status—and now the country can afford to hire people to come teach. Unlike Peace Corps Volunteers, these teachers generally receive no training—not in teaching techniques, not in Korean culture, and not in Korean language. With little preparation in cultural sensitivity, it is no surprise when these foreigners clash with their hosts, such as the numerous incidents Tharp recounts in Dispatches.

But I don’t mean to be overly harsh, and I readily admit that some of my criticism is the result of my nostalgia for a Korea that is these days hard to find. In fact, I enjoyed Dispatches very much, and appreciated Tharp’s growth over the period described in the book. In the sections covering his early days in the country, Tharp is condescending toward Koreans (in the tradition of Paul Theroux—a former Peace Corps Volunteer—who never met a local he couldn’t make fun of). But over time, it’s clear that Tharp’s affection for Korea and his understanding of the country have grown, so that in the later sections of the book the self-portrait is of a man who is much more in tune with his surroundings. I also was touched by Tharp’s account of the loss of both his mother and father while living abroad (which closely paralleled the deaths of both of my parents while I lived in Singapore in the ´80s and early ´90s), and the challenges of being so distant from family. I also could relate to Tharp’s experience in other ways, including his love of Korean food and his struggles with the Korean language.

If you’re considering teaching English abroad, of if you’re just interested in what life is like for a foreigner in Korea, read this book. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Book Review: Dakota, or What's a Heaven For, by Brenda Marshall




North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 2010

What to make of an old-fashioned telling of a thoroughly modern story? Brenda Marshall’s Dakota may put off some impatient readers by following certain literary conventions of the time about which she is writing (the 1870s)—chapter headings describe what will happen in that chapter, for example, and rich exposition helps complete the portrait of the people and landscape of the Dakota Territory—but persistence will be rewarded. This novel tells a surprising and a compelling story that you haven’t heard before, and it’s filled with extraordinarily complex and memorable characters.

The “Pre-Amble” offers clues as to what the book is about: it’s a story of independence. “That narrative of independence remains as powerful, as false, as necessary as ever in the Dakotas. It has become our fetish, replacing the lost object of desire, the impossible place that never was. You have been told that there is nothing there. I tell you there is too much. Even where there is nothing, there is too much of it.” This prologue also gives us a list of the various narrative voices the reader will meet, including the book’s dominant voice, that of Frances Bingham: “I mean for this to be my story. It, too, is a story of what a woman’s patience can endure, as well as of what a woman’s resolution can achieve.”

This Frances has married one Percy Bingham in order to be near his sister, Anna, the true object of Frances’s desire. Percy, however, is no great catch, although his lack of ambition means that proximity to Anna is secured, even when the family moves from St. Paul to the “Bonanza Farm” of Percy and Anna’s father, John Bingham, who has acquired his stake through his connections to the Northern Pacific Railroad. It is there, on the farm, that Frances discovers her independence, and allows herself to pursue her “object of desire.” But it is the 1870s, and nothing is very simple. As a woman, one who is more competent than any of the men around her, she cannot easily strike out on her own. She is a wife and is herself an object, no matter how she would like to be defined. When she is rebuffed by Anna, she is reluctant to act when a new desire emerges.

Life is hard in the Dakota Territory, and not just for Frances. Blizzards seem endless, and are followed almost invariably by flooding and disease. Alcoholism is not unusual, and there are other addictions as well. One of the most memorable characters in the book is Little Carl, who harbors a shocking secret. There is also Jack Shaw, a Russian Jew who abandons the swamp land his community bought, believing the marketing hype about the golden prairie. There is manipulative J.B. Power, an executive of the Northern Pacific Railroad, the driving force behind the settlement of the territory. There is Alexander McKenzie, the scheming businessman who bends everyone, including politicians and businesspeople, to his will, who has his sights set on Frances. And there is sweet Kirsten, the Norwegian girl who learns, even better than Frances, how to survive on her own.

Frances, though, is the heart of the story. And while the reader’s sympathy is often with her as she battles her drunkard husband, as she seeks recognition for her skills, as she tries to do right by her less-fortunate neighbors, as she copes with her own desires, her struggle for independence reveals her imperfections. She is, ultimately, selfish, and for that she pays a high price—and learns a very hard lesson.

But the book is also a story of the Dakota Territory, and the author’s command of its history is truly impressive. It’s well worth reading.

Tips for Writers: The Cover Letter


Some writers confuse cover letters with query letters. Indeed, there may be some overlap between the two, and their purposes are similar, but they are different beasts. I’ll deal with query letters another time, but in short they are letters sent to agents or editors in which a book is described and supporting information (bio and publication credits) is provided. (There are other sorts of queries as well—following up on a previous submission, or putting forth an idea for an article or other project.) The purpose of the query letter is to get the agent or editor to ask to see the book manuscript or proposal, and to that end it must include a compelling synopsis of the material. Query letter writing is almost an art unto itself.


A cover letter, on the other hand, is much more straightforward. As the name suggests, it is the letter that is included with short work—a short story, an essay, or a poem, for example—that is being submitted for consideration by a magazine. The purpose is to get the magazine to read the material, but in this case that material is already in the hands of the magazine. There is no need, therefore, to describe it or summarize it in any way. In fact, most magazine editors will be put off if you do that. The'll be especially put off if you say how wonderful it is, or how wonderful someone else thinks it is. With short work, the writing stands on its own. All you have to do is name the piece being submitted, provide a brief biography, and list publication credits (or other relevant credentials). (Some cover letters are simply transmittal letters, accompanying work that has already been requested, in which case the bio and credits can be omitted.)

The cover letter would look something like this [Note: letterhead includes contact information including phone and email, but if this is going by email then I add that following the signature]:

November 18, 2011

Ronald Spatz, Editor
Alaska Quarterly Review
University of Alaska Anchorage
3211 Providence Drive (ESH 208)
Anchorage, AK 99508

Dear Ronald Spatz,

I am submitting this story for your consideration. I would welcome any response you may have to “The Nations of Witness.”

My short story collection, In an Uncharted Country, was published in September 2009 by Press 53 and my novel in stories, What the Zhang Boys Know, is forthcoming in 2012. My work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Bellevue Literary Review, Blackbird, Cream City Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. I hold a J.D. and an M.A. in English from Indiana University and an M.F.A. in Fiction from Queens University of Charlotte. I have received fellowships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
Sincerely,
Clifford Garstang

Simple, straightforward, businesslike. And the same letter can be used with email and online submission managers.

A few things to note:
·       
Do not summarize or comment about the work being submitted.

·       Do not include every publication credit you have. Pick the best ones. Here’s a note from Writer’s Relief that may help you decide which credits to include: “From Best to the Not so Best”. As that article emphasizes, not all publication credits are equal.

·       Include only the relevant biographical details. Frankly, I should leave out my JD in the above cover letter unless I’m submitting to one of the few literary journals that is connected to a law school. But I do think it says something about my general level of education, so I leave it in. What is relevant may depend on the publication you are submitting to. On the other hand, if something shows your seriousness as a writer—attendance at a writers’ conference or a fellowship to a writers’retreat, for example—that should be included.

·       Do not invite the recipient to visit your website for more information. It’s okay to include your web address, but the editor won’t generally want to take the time to check.

·       Address the letter in accordance with the magazine’s guidelines. It is generally best to use the name of the actual person whose attention you want, even if you realize the letter will be opened and read by someone else (an intern, a managing editor, or whoever). I don’t think most editors are terribly offended if the letter is addressed to the Editor, or the Fiction Editor, instead of to a name, however. At least I’m not, and otherwise I’m pretty easy to offend, so I assume this isn’t a big deal.

·       Keep it simple and short. Never more than one page. The idea is get the editor to read the story or essay or poem, not the letter.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The New Yorker: "The Climber Room" by Sam Lipsyte


November 21, 2011: “The Climber Room” by Sam Lipsyte

This is the third Lipsyte story in The New Yorker in the last 13 months. The first of the three I didn’t like much. The second one, “Deniers,” I thought was much better. And I liked this one a lot, at least until the ending, and that I’m not so sure about.

The story is about Tovah Gold, who, interestingly, is a minor character in “Deniers.” (Check out the Q&A with Sam Lipsyte in which he’s asked if that suggests he’s working on a bigger project, to which he replies that he’s working on a collection of stories linked by the fact that he wrote them. Heh.) In “Deniers” I liked Tovah because she was a send-up of the pretentious poet. In this story, she’s grown up a little, and is less pretentious, but is attempting recover her fondness for poetry. She is employed in a private pre-Kindergarten, which exhausts her (although it’s a part-time job), and in that capacity comes to know little Dezzy (short for Desdemona), the daughter of Randall Gautier. (When he introduces himself, she thinks he has said “Randy Goat,” which turns out to be close enough.)

Because life isn’t going anywhere for Tovah—not that she’s unhappy, but she’s sort of treading water—she fantasizes about becoming Mrs. Randy Goat. And, more to the point, about having Randy Goat’s baby. She is suddenly, at age 36, anxious to have a baby: “It didn’t matter if the baby was hers except it absolutely did. She wanted to carry it and give birth to it and breast-feed it and live in a natural cocoon with it for as long as possible, with somebody on the outside slipping everything she needed through a slim vent.” (Which makes it seem a bit like prison, doesn’t it?)

And then the story, or its climax, is what actually happens between Tovah and Randy. It allows Lipsyte to give Tovah a nice monologue, which begins, “You know, it’s very hard. Here. In America. In the world. For women.” Which, if this story has a point, is pretty much it. And then . . .

I’m sorry the story is behind the paywall, but I don’t want to give away the ending.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Tips for Writers: Write What You DON’T Know (about what you know)


An oft-repeated rule for writers is “write what you know.” Most of us accept this on faith because it seems to make sense. Among other things, the better you know a subject, the more details will be at your command and the more likely it will be that you will establish authority on the page that will inspire the reader’s confidence. Our most credible writers of war stories—Tim O’Brien comes to mind—are veterans themselves. (Happy Veterans’ Day!) They know what they’re talking about, and it shows up in their work.

However, one of America’s great writers of the Twentieth Century took a different angle on this rule. I had the privilege of studying with Grace Paley at a little-known writers’ conference in Mexico called Under the Volcano. I was in awe of Paley, despite the fact that she was this tiny, somewhat frail, extremely generous and kind, grandmotherly woman. And she was also full of good advice, including the debunking of some “rules” of writing.

It’s not, “write what you know,” she insisted, it’s “write what you don’t know about what you know.” Otherwise, it’s boring. For you and the reader. What’s the point of writing, I think she meant, if you’re just going to explore known territory. Stretch. Reach. Push beyond and take some risks.

And sometimes, knowing a subject too well prevents the writer from really seeing it.

For example, I once wrote a short story set in a coffee shop. In a workshop, I was told by the leader—a famous novelist—that the setting was too vague, and that the problem was that I hadn’t fully imagined the place myself, so of course I couldn’t render it on the page so that readers could see it. In fact, though, the opposite was true, and the famous novelist realized this as soon as he’d made his original pronouncement. The coffee shop of the story was based on a coffee shop I knew well and frequented. The reason that it didn’t appear clearly on the page was that I knew it too well, and was no longer really seeing it. I had an image of it in my head that subconsciously I believed everyone else could see, too. What I needed to do was to really see the coffee shop—the real one or an imagined one—in order to describe it effectively. I needed to discover things about this coffee shop that I didn’t know, or had overlooked, and that’s what I needed to write.

I’m currently writing a novel set in Singapore. I know Singapore. I lived there for ten years. So I’m able to get a lot of what I need for this story just from my own experience. But then I’ll push beyond what I already know to discover some of the history of the country—which is more interesting than modern readers might imagine—and to “drill down,” so to speak, to discover things beneath the surface that I hadn’t seen before. But there’s more to this exploration, because of the character traits I’m writing about—but I’ll save that topic for another day.

For another take on this issue, see Bret Anthony Johnston's essay from The Atlantic: Don't Write What You Know.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The New Yorker: "Miracle Polish" by Steven Millhauser


November 14, 2011: “Miracle Polish” by Steven Millhauser

The good news is that this week’s story is available for free online. And it’s worth reading. I certainly found myself completely engaged to the end, as I almost always am with Millhauser’s work.

The first person story is about a middle-aged guy who buys some “Miracle Polish” from a door-to-door salesman because he feels sorry for him. The narrator puts the stuff in a drawer and forgets about it until one day he sees a smudge on a mirror. He ends up polishing the whole mirror and what he sees amazes him: “There was a freshness to my image, a kind of mild glow that I had never seen before.” He polishes the other mirrors in his house, and feels silly for being tricked by the polish. His girlfriend comes over and sees it too. The guy gets more mirrors and polishes them all. He’s not only a little compulsive about it, but he thinks of the reflection as somehow separate from himself, and Monica’s from hers. Monica is a bit jealous of her own reflection.

They go on a picnic, which seems to be glorious. Millhauser emphasizes the sunlight—Monica’s blouse has a shimmer to it, she takes her hat off and lets “the sunlight ripple over her face”; a jewel sparkles in her earlobe; she “takes in the sun with closed eyes”. Thanks to the bright sun, then, she seems to have become the woman in the mirror, instead of the dark, tightly wound woman she usually is. But the sun has a different effect on the narrator—the glare of the sun on the water hurts his eyes; the heat is oppressive; he feels despair. But he feels better, oddly, when he sees their reflection in his mirror back home.

Then comes the ultimatum. He must choose between Monica and her reflection. He worries about it and then makes his decision, even though he believes that the reflection is the true Monica, the “hidden Monica.” He thinks, “I was able to see in the depths of those mirrors, the world no longer darkened by diminishing hopes and fading dreams.”

And the story rolls along to its climax.

But what does it all mean? It’s a bit of a fairy tale, it seems to me, in which the narrator learns a lesson about letting the light into his life. But the lesson gets muddled by Monica’s reaction, and the fact that when real life gives her light—on the picnic—she seems to come alive. The light that the narrator sees, though, is artificial. He learns a lesson, but it seems to be the wrong one. And he pays a price.

Another interesting story from Millhauser.

2012 Pushcart Prize Rankings (Nonfiction)

[Note: If you find this Pushcart Prize Ranking useful, please consider making a donation to support this blog. Alternatively, you could buy my book. See the buttons at right. Thank you.]

As you may know, I recently supplemented my annual Pushcart Prize Ranking for Fiction with a new list--the Pushcart Prize Ranking for Nonfiction. Like the fiction list, each magazine recognized over the past ten years (2003-2012) is awarded points for the number of prizes it has won and fewer points for the number of special mentions. The numbers are totaled and the ranking is generated.

While the Pushcart Prize is subjective, my ranking is entirely objective. I find it a useful resource for comparing magazines. Others have told me that they do also. Use it as you see fit.

As with the fiction list (this year's list can be found here), magazines that have ceased publication are marked with © and magazines for which I have no information or cannot find a website are marked with (?). If you have additional information for me, I'd appreciate it if you could leave a comment below.

What have we learned in this update? Not much. The top ten shuffled a little, but remained the same.
Orion kept pace with Georgia Review because they each earned one prize and two special mentions, but Georgia Review actually lost a little ground when the data for 2002 was removed. Hudson Review dropped in the rankings; Harvard Review and n+1 both jumped. Otherwise, there weren't a lot of big movers.

Nonfiction Pushcart Prize Ranking for 2012

2012
Magazine
2012 Score
1
72
2
58
3
42
4
38
5
37
5
37
7
36
8
35
8
35
8
35
11
29
11
29
12
28
14
26
15
24
16
19
16
19
18
18
19
16
19
16
20
15
20
15
20
15
20
15
20
15
20
15
20
15
27
14
27
14
30
13
30
13
32
12
32
12
32
12
34
11
34
Speakeasy ©
11
34
11
34
11
39
10
39
10
39
10
42
9
43
8
43
8
43
8
45
7
45
7
45
7
45
7
50
6
50
6
52
5
52
5
52
5
52
5
52
5
52
5
52
5
52
5
52
5
52
5
52
5
52
5
52
5
52
5
66
4
66
4
68
3
68
3
68
3
68
3
68
3
68
3
68
3
68
3
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
76
2
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
Divide ?
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
Make ?
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
Northern Lights (?)
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
Palo Alto Review ?
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1
100
1