Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On Writing Reading

While I usually use this space to talk about writing, reading is nearly as important to my identity as a writer. Many writers I admire claim the same, and I think it is something, as readers and writers alike, that we should think about more often.

I am a voracious reader. I can't tell you how many nights I've chosen a book over sleep, and that started before I turned ten years old. I blame - or, rather, credit - my mother, who always loved books and their inner-worlds, and taught me a love for them early. For me, writing and reading are inextricably linked. As I read, I often jot down notes, and as I write, if I find myself blocked, I'll take a break and read a bit.

In an attempt to keep track of my reading habits (and, selfishly, to see how much I was really reading per year), at the beginning of 2010 I started a reading diary on Tumblr. It's essentially a quickie log of all the books I've read for the year, and a brief thumbs up or down. If you take the time to scan through, you'll find my reading tastes are all over the map - lots of paranormal romance, psychological thrillers, murder mysteries, horror, poetry. Books on librarianship, education, and the craft of writing. The list is as scattered as my interests, and I often forget to list one here and there. I like to think of it as a sort of "grade deflation," if you will. In any case, it's a very interesting exercise, and I recommend it. Without keeping such a log, I wouldn't be able to tell you that I'm up to more than 111 books read in 2010. The holidays hold a bit of travel for me, so I imagine I'll make it closer to 120 before 2010 is officially nailed into its coffin. While I tend to read in clumps, particularly holidays and weekends, it averages to about one book every 3 days.

Am I afraid what I read affects my writing? Yes and no. "Afraid" isn't really the right word - I think we are influenced by everything we read, see, hear and do. I think some things - and some writers - will affect us more than others depending on our tastes and histories. I know I am influenced by my reading in terms of how I write, what I write about, and how I think about writing, sound, line breaks, and more. My forthcoming collection, The Kentucky Vein, was inspired by my reading Ray Gonzalez, Maurice Manning, and a handful of others. There's much less of an obvious influence in my previous collections, but if I look closely at those, I can see Louise Gluck, Janice Harrington, Kim Addonizio, Lucille Clifton, Richard Hugo and others peeking through at me. If you read them, you may see others.

I've heard that many writing students balk at reading because they want to be original, they don't want some echo of a former writer to show up in their work. I believe that choosing to be poorly read is the same thing as choosing ignorance; being willfully un-knowledged. I would recommend instead that writers read as broadly as possible, and be influenced by as many as possible. As a writer, become aware of which writers you like, and try to articulate why it is you prefer them. After much reading and some studying with great writers, I can tell you that while I don;t prefer his storytelling overmuch, I like the mouthfeel of Richard Hugo and the way he plays with syllables, sounds and wordshapes in his poems. I get caught easily by good wavelike rhythms, like those used by T. S. Eliot and Lucille Clifton. I like the strong female protagonists and the harsher staccato rhythms in Kim Addonizio's work, I like much of the persona work done by Ai, and I prefer the storytelling of Louise Gluck and Natasha Trethewey. I love Kipling for his wit and humor, and Whitman for his exuberance and lack of restraint. I admire the gemlike precision and clarity of Czeslaw Milosz. I could go on forever, but the point is that I don't fear the influence of these writers...I pray for it. I hope that delving into the qualities of their work that attract me so much will help me hone those qualities in my own writing. Being able to recognize excellence is a precursor to training yourself to create it yourself, or to at least recognize when you are hitting the sweet spot with your pen!

How can you decide what you like in literature and writing, or more importantly, why you like it, unless you've exposed yourself to different flavors? The lovely poet and non-fiction writer Molly Peacock gave a lecture on "Literary Aunts & Uncles" when I attended Spalding University for my MFA. Essentially, she noted that reading other writers allows us to place ourselves in a particular tradition. If you are a writer, read widely and joyfully. Discover who your literary ancestors are. Read in your genre so you can place yourself (and also appear to be not a complete self-absorbed ass if someone asks you about your craft, heh heh). Read outside your genre for fun, for the brain-break it creates,and to connect with other writers and to identify the difficulties of their craft. (For instance, I am always amazed and impressed at the stamina of writers who work in long-forms, such as fiction novels and biographies. As a poet, I can make a transition by putting a new poem on the next page, whereas they have much more work to make leaps between subjects, areas, and characters happen.)

And if you are already a reader: as a writer, I say thank you. Your willingness to explore other worlds and give my words a chance keeps me going. Keep turning those pages!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Genres Like Potato Chips: Can't Choose Just One

I've been quite taken with experimenting with genres outside my training in poetry lately, and am surprised at how well that other-writing is going. My essay "Of Blue Collars and Electrical Tape" appears in the latest issue of The Sequoya Review. An edited version of the essay is included in the last section of The Kentucky Vein, forthcoming from Punkin House Press. There are a handful of essays in that collection (forthcoming sometime in mid-2011, Punkin & I will let you know when!), and I found working in essay form to be very interesting. A little bit more sloppy than my poetry, maybe, since poems have to be far more distilled, the essays more closely resemble my stream of consciousness. They're more conversation-like, somehow. (Perhaps a bit like my blog posts.) Of course, all of my academic and craft training is in poetry, so if you find the essays terrible or insufferable, the blame is all mine.

I also just got word from Kara, the editor at Midnight Screaming, that my short-short story "A Hound That Does Not Hunt" has been accepted for the January issue. My first-ever fiction placement! It's around 1800 words, a creepy (I hope) little vignette about how close we are to our beloved pets...and how close they might still be to wild animals with the need to kill. As a lifelong Stephen King fan, and a regular consumer of the horror/terror/paranormal genre, I am absolutely *tickled* to have placed that little piece!

And so, I'm back to thinking about genre-breaking, and wondering how often we as writers take advantage of the different word-containers available to us. I know some of the writers I admire most (Molly Peacock, Robert Bly, Phil Deaver, Frederick Smock, and many others) dabble in a bit of this, a bit of that, whether they combine their poetry with creative nonfiction, fiction, translation, or some other type of writing, some other type of brain-bending around language. Occasionally I feel guilty for mucking about in not-poetry, as though I am cheating my genre of time and effort. But really, sometimes I need something different. Something to cleanse the palate. Not all stories can be told the same way...the way just because soup is food does not mean it can be eaten from the same plate or with a fork and knife like a ribeye.

I'm happy to have found editors willing to indulge my dabbling with different forms, willing to offer me a piece of their audience to try my hand on. I'm happy to have multiple arenas to toss my creative energy into, hoping something takes good shape and survives. And I hope other writers don't limit themselves to whatever original writer label they slapped onto themselves. There's a whole universe of forms out there. Test them. Test yourself.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Pushcart Nomination! "When You Came Home From the War"

I woke up this morning to an email from Colin, editor of Lamplighter Review, informing me that I'm one of the authors chosen to receive a Pushcart nomination for this year for my poem "When You Came Home From the War."

When You Came Home From The War

your body was a war-torn city.
We rubbed against each other
and it sounded like violins scowling.
We loved like October maples scream
and we loved like kudzu, overtaking all things.
We were lovers because there was nothing else
we could think to do with our bodies
but burn them.

I am excited - this poem is one of my favorites, and appears in These Terrible Sacraments.

I was honored to be a nominee for the Pushcart Prize for the last round - it's heady company to be in, and given the quality of what was in the collection this year, I don't envy the judges their task. Well, I do envy their getting to read all that excellent work, but trimming it down must be quite difficult. I didn't make it past the nomination last year, but I'm crossing my fingers for this new round. Congratulations and best of luck to all the nominees for this year!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

These Terrible Sacraments is Available from Bellowing Ark!

These Terrible Sacraments is available now from Bellowing Ark Press! Please go check it out - the cover is a beautiful glossy thanks to the dedication of my editor, and (if I do say so myself), I hope you find it to be a powerful collection. The poems reflect the impact of war not only on a soldier, but on his family and loved ones, and I hope the book finds a wide, interested, and compassionate audience. If you are feeling extra generous this holiday, order a copy.

It's important to remember those who voluntary place themselves in harm's way to serve a greater good, and their families who do without them. Thank a serviceperson as you travel this holiday season, and remember - you may be grumpy due to crowds and long lines, but the reality of a soldier's life abroad is much more difficult than that...and they don't get to complain. Remember to ask yourself what you are grateful for. As I say in the dedication of the book, to my brother Patrick (USMC), I am grateful he came home safe. I hope all our other men and women serving are as blessed.

The Kentucky Vein moving right along at Punkin House Press!

The Kentucky Vein came back to me with suggested revisions by editor-goddess Cheryl, who has a keen eye for *everything*. (Dear all authors: you need an editor with hawk eyes. Trust me. And thank them.) I finally bounced it back today, and I think we're looking at a tentative Summer 2011 release from Punkin House!

Not that Punkin is resting on their laurels until then. If you visit the Authors page, you'll find that they are promoting their printed authors as well as the pending folks, which is very fun to see. In fact, they've even got my author page up, if you care to read it! They're busy attaching our Facebook profiles, creating author pages in Facebook, setting up writing blogs for each of us, and they will be posting video of readings from our manuscripts. I'm feeling very lucky to have been accepted by such an energetic team!