Wednesday, April 16, 2014

SBJ vs. n+1: The Two Cultures of American Magazine Editors

As a founder and co-editor in chief of Stoneboat Literary Journal, I often wonder what big-league editors do to build a successful magazine. I recently had the opportunity to do just that when best-selling author and editor of n+1 magazine Chad Harbach visited my alma mater to give an informative talk and answer questions about his books, magazine, and potential television project. 

With his novel The Art of Fielding in hand, I was the very last person to approach his table to get my book signed. My mind was swimming with questions: How did you build funding for your journal? What did you do to grow your audience? Where did you find resources for constructing a marketing plan? How do you carve out time to write every day? I didn't know which question to ask first of a man whom I respect and admire.

After he signed my book, however, the question became quite obvious: 

Will you arm wrestle me?

Chad Harbach and Rob Pockat lock hands before the big match.
While I must admit that I'm one who harbors constant impulsivity issues, I'm normally quite able to contain those impulsive behaviors in public. Not so much on this given evening.

Chad's a fellow born-and-bred Wisconsinite, so he wholeheartedly accepted my challenge. Like most people from our home state, Chad takes what he does very seriously, but he's not afraid of a little good-natured levity. Yet even in the convivial spirit of this competition, I could see an instant fire in his eyes...a fire that made the final results of the match quite apparent to me before we even locked hands.

I walked away not knowing how to build funding, grow an audience, construct a marketing plan, or find time to write, but I did find affirmation in my belief that great art--writing, painting, music, drawing, film-making, etc.--comes from good people who aren't afraid to take a chance. Chad Harbach, as we say in Wisconsin, is good people. And he's definitely not afraid to take a chance.

I'm not ashamed to say that a New York Times best-selling author, Harvard graduate, and successful magazine editor owned me on that given table, on that given night, and yes, there's video to prove it. I am proud to say, however, that I wasn't afraid to take a chance to share a few minutes of amusement with a fellow Wisconsin denizen.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Is Writer's Block All Bad?

I always used to use the excuse of writer’s block whenever I couldn’t think of something to write that day or if I got stuck writing a piece of prose. (I'm a poet.) But then I thought about what writer’s block really is. It’s just an excuse to not write or avoid writing. A lot of people use random excuses to not write: I have to do laundry. I need to pick my kids up. I have homework to do. I have to eat. In my opinion, true writers write, and those who truly love writing will always find a way to get around writer’s block—they don’t let is defeat them.

Something I do when I can’t write is read other people’s work. This will usually get me thinking about different ways to approach about the same ideas. I will pick up one of my many poetry books that I have accumulated over the years and open up to a random page. I will read that poem over and over again until I think of different ways to write that idea. If that doesn’t work, I pick another random page or book until an idea pops into my head.

“Writer’s block” is not always something to frown upon. It can lead you to someplace great because you are working hard to get past the rough spot of writing. Sometimes you have to get stuck and frustrated to create something new and amazing; sometimes you have to find new and interesting ways to work yourself out of the block, and this will lead you to new and different places for your writing.

Philip Dacey had a workshop about writer’s block and gave a list of things that writers could do when they “can’t write.” A previous blog post listed the first nine things from Philip Dacey’s workshop. Here are the next five things that you can do when you "can’t write":

10.   Deceive your reader. Write something that is so plausible to your readers so they don’t realize that you are lying to them. This is similar to the persona activity where you would write something in the perspective of another person or identity, but instead, you are hiding instead of signaling.
11.   Permuting the line. This seems like a fun yet inspirational idea to experiment with language. Take one line and change it. Change the idea of the line but changing the order of the words. Replace one word with another to change the rhythm and meaning.
12.   Write only first lines, free of the obligation to complete the poem. I’ve done this many times when writing my poetry. I would have this one line stuck in my head unsure of where I would go with it. I would write that one line and see where it goes.
13.   Try automatic writing. Just write for however many lines and see where it takes you. Don’t think about revising or scratching lines out with your pen. Just write. If you are caught revising, it’s not automatic enough.
14.   Brainstorm through your memory. I, myself, love doing this when I’m not sure what I want to write about. For five minutes or so I would just write about my past memories using as few words as possible and move onto the next memory to see where it takes you.

Try a few of these ideas and go write.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Zoltar Speaks! Call for Fortune Poems!

Perhaps you have heard we at Stoneboat are collaborating with our friends at the Paradigm Annex Theatre Collective (PATC) to offer Art Prom, a fundraiser to support the work of our two organizations.

As part of the fun and festivities of Art Prom, scheduled for Saturday, May 31, 2014 at Paradigm Coffee and Music in Sheboygan, we are going to offer a "human Zoltar machine." In order to do this, we need a human. We have him. We need a costume. Have that. We also need fortunes. These, we do not have. This is where you come in.

Please submit a fortune to support both Stoneboat and the PATC. The fortunes can be written in poem form, prose form, or whatever form best expresses the fortune you wish to put out into the world for some unsuspecting soul. This is what real Zoltar cards look like and you are free to interpret the fortune writing as you wish:

Please send your fortune submission in the body of an email (no attachments please) to by midnight, May 9, 2014. In the subject line, please write [your last name] Zoltar Submission. Please include your name, address, and phone. No bio necessary. We will have the poems printed up on cards and will charge a small fee for prom goers to receive a fortune from Zoltar. We cannot pay you for your work, but please know that your creative effort is going to a good cause, two good causes in fact: Stoneboat and the Paradigm Annex Theatre Collective.

And, while you are at it, come to Art Prom and have some fun from 8 p.m. to midnight on Saturday, May 31! Must be 21 or older to attend. For $15 per person, ($25 per couple) you will get DJ, dancing, booze, snacks, prom attire, balloon arches. What more could a grown-up ask for on a spring night?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Calling to the Muses

"Where do you get the inspiration for your [insert chosen media here]?” is an inquiry often heard in the “question and answer” portion of any typical artistic event. I heard it tonight at a poetry reading on Lakeland College’s campus, where Stephanie Lenox, a poet from Oregon, read from her debut collection, Congress of Strange People, as well as some of her newer, not-yet-published work.

The poems that Lenox chose to read are characteristically odd in their subject matter. They’re monologues of world-record holders (Dean Sheldon for example, who holds the world record for holding both the largest scorpion and the most scorpions at one time in his mouth). They’re odes to the ampersand and the word um. They’re poems about what bosses and secretaries would do in heaven. They’re weird in the best kind of way.

“How the hell do you come up with this (awesome) stuff?” seems like a natural enough question. “Where do you get the inspiration for your poems?” is probably a more appropriate one. Lenox answered this by saying something along the lines of “I start with things that frustrate me—that I can’t figure out or that I need to know more about.” As an example, she explained that she kept getting mad at herself for using the word um when she’s speaking. Upon trying to figure out why she (and most of the general population) does this, she decided to write about this frustration that turned into an ode to the word um.

Now there’s something. If I wrote a poem about all of the things that frustrated me, I could probably fill an entire library.  Jokes aside, listening to all of this inspiration talk tonight got me thinking about the things that inspire my writing. I tend to write about things that just won’t leave my mind—the things I obsess over or dwell on endlessly, no matter how mundane. For example, when I moved into my first apartment, I became obsessed with candles. I always had (and still have, honestly) one or more candles burning in my apartment. They’re always around, and consequently, in the months I’ve been living here, I’ve written multiple candle poems (Yes, candles to me are like cats to a cat lady—sadly, there are no pets allowed in my apartment, or I might be writing more cat poems).

In the end, though, I think I like Lennox’s method better than mine. I believe that the quest to know stuff, to figure things out, should be at the heart of writing. What’s the point of writing about something if the very idea of it is set in stone, unmalleable, unchanging? All in all, I think getting a little frustrated and seeking to understand that frustration is a great starting point for any creative work. I’m going to try it, but don’t be surprised if my next poem is titled “Please Drive Faster or Get Out of the Left Lane.” 

-Katie Amundsen 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The AWP Report

Last week Rob and I spent four glorious days in Seattle at AWP catching up with old friends, making new friends, learning from other writers and publishers, binging on literary journals, and -- yes, we admit it -- doing a little sightseeing and eating copious amounts of gelato.

When I went to conferences in the past, I always attended a lot of craft panels to find inspiration and jump-start my own writing. This year was different, though. Since I took on the co-Editor in Chief role six months ago, I figured I ought to wear my editor hat at AWP rather than my writer hat this year.  Therefore, I attended publishing panels in Seattle. The topics were things like distribution, getting literary journals into libraries, becoming financially sustainable, and increasing small press readership.

I furiously scribbled page upon page of notes, and Rob did the same.  His brain was moving in a different direction than mine, though; as I was thinking about implementing all of these new ideas, Rob was thinking about what wasn't being discussed: the writers.

Once he pointed it out to me, I was appalled that I hadn't realized it myself.  I was so deep in editor mode that I had completely disconnected from my writer perspective. Where were the writers in all of these conversations about MARC records, PCNs, charging for submissions, marketing through Twitter, and selling Kindle versions?  Where were the panels on how journals and presses can better serve the writers?  Obviously there wouldn't be anything to catalog and no one to donate and no readers to attract if it wasn't for the writers, but that doesn't make it okay to take them for granted and cut them out of the conversation. 

At Stoneboat, everything we do is for the writers. We constantly refine our layout and format to create a publication that flatters their work and that they can be proud to appear in. We pinch pennies so that we can print a longer issue that features more writers. We jumped into Lake Michigan on a 10-degree day and spend Saturday afternoons in Rob's basement hand-printing T-shirts so that we can keep on doing what we do. Stoneboat isn't about bringing ourselves glory, and it's definitely not about profit. It's about creating something that allows writers to share their work with the world.

We were still brooding over the "where are the writers?" question as we made our initial trip to the AWP bookfair. Surrounded by tables representing literally hundreds of literary journals, we felt overwhelmed. We wondered why we publish a journal in such an over-saturated market. We wondered, as we wandered past the likes of Creative Nonfiction and Beloit Poetry Journal, if we'll ever feel that we're doing a good enough job of connecting readers and writers. We wondered how on earth our little boat could float in such a vast sea.  In that moment (admittedly glassy-eyed and delirious from lack of sleep), we weren't at all confident about what we were doing.

And then I heard someone calling my name.  "Signe?  Signe?  From Stoneboat?"  It was Kiersten Bridger, whose poem "Weeble Haibun" appears in our current issue. She recognized us from the Stoneboat Facebook page and took the initiative to say hello. We chatted for a while -- about the journal, about writing, about publishing, and about the need that literary journals fill (even the small ones like ours). I walked away from that interaction with a completely different perspective. It was an incredible experience to connect with one of our contributors and see the impact we'd had by publishing her poem. It reminded me of why we do what we do, and it made me want to do it better.

We ran into other contributors at AWP, too: Maryann Hurtt, Sandra Kleven, David Onofrychuk, Erin Wilcox. Some, we'd met before. Others we met for the first time. They all reminded us that at Stoneboat, the writer is our top priority. Having funds to pay the printer is important, but not so important than being a few dollars short will stop us from providing an opportunity for writers to make their voices heard. We're small, but we're doing something big. We know we're doing it for the right reasons. And we're proud of that.

AWP was a humbling experience for us, but it was also amazing. It renewed our excitement about the journal and reminded us why we continue to do this difficult, time-consuming work. The salary is $0.00, but knowing that we gave "Weeble Haibun" a home is priceless.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Review of Eric Greinke's For the Living Dead: New & Selected Poems

Zombies vs. Robots
by Mary Kate DeJardin

If I had to wrap up Eric Greinke’s collection of poems, For the Living Dead: New & Selected Poems, in three words, I would say: simple, yet complex.  Greinke uses simple language to show the complex relationship between the natural and the supernatural over four decades of his writing career. He does this throughout the book by writing about everything from zombies and clowns to storms and seasons.

Greinke has a way with simple words that evoke a chilling sensation that runs through the body. An example can be both seen and felt in his piece “The Accident”:

When they got to the car
they saw it was wrapped
like a fist on the staff
of the steel-armed tree
The children had come to earth.
One was already dead.
One gasped horrid breaths
that wound down while they watched.

This excerpt from “The Accident” left me with emotion and hair standing on end while recollecting memories from crashes throughout the years. This piece evokes feeling in the reader that would otherwise not be felt unless the reader has a similar moment in his or her life.

Greinke also has the ability to bring the dream-like and supernatural to life. He does this in the title piece “For The Living Dead”:

In the post-apocalyptic world
The zombies are loosely organized
With no zombie leader
They wander in random abandon
Trying to play various musical instruments
But their rhythm is shot

This excerpt takes dream-like events such as the apocalypse and zombies and turns them into a very real event. This piece really left me on edge about how it could possible end as it led from zombies to robot armies throughout this ten-section poem.

Greinke goes on to tell readers about the natural world about through storms and seasons. An example of one of his season poems is “Our House”:

Summer’s gone, the garden’s in,
the grass in back is tall
& green. Robins are flying
south again. We’ll see them
when they return next spring.
The trees are red & brown. Autumn
makes me feel old. Especially when
I look ahead, to the coming snow, & the child
we waited for so long.

This is just an excerpt that does an excellent job at describing the detail of what is going on in the world throughout the season changes. Also, the speaker's feelings about those season changes is described in detail, as are the changes that occur within the speaker.

For the Living Dead is a great book if you are looking for something simple but thought-provoking and emotional. The poet does an excellent job at leaving the reader on edge, and he always leaves the reader thinking at the end of each poem. Eric Greinke’s collection of poems written throughout four decades of his writing career left me wanting more.

For the Living Dead: New & Selected Poems
Eric Greinke
Presa Press
January 1, 2013

Monday, February 17, 2014

Review: The Biology of Luck by Jacob M. Appel

They Don’t Call it Novel for Nothing
by Katie Amundsen

The Biology of Luck isn’t just the name of Jacob M. Appel's novel, it’s the name of protagonist Larry Bloom’s novel as well, the one he has written from the perspective of the eccentric Starshine Hart, his would-be lover. The tale of Larry, a New York City tour guide, is told alongside Starshine’s (or rather, Larry’s fictional depiction of Starshine’s life) in alternating chapters of this innovative novel. The entire story takes place in a single day, documenting the lives of both Larry and Starshine as they brave the day’s events leading up to their scheduled dinner date.

The first thing that struck me about this novel was the incredibly authentic sense of place—that is, it’s unmistakably set in New York City. In fact, there’s a map that folds into the front cover for those of us less acquainted with the city.  It’s no surprise that the novel’s author, Jacob M. Appel, shares a profession with his protagonist. Larry paints a portrait of New York City that is simultaneously colorful, diverse, messy, and unpredictable. It’s clearly Larry’s New York, not the New York of the tourists whom he herds around the city every day. A tip for those planning on picking up The Biology of Luck: Be sure to brush up on your Walt Whitman, whose shadow of influence is often cast over Larry’s sense of the city throughout the narrative.

Appel’s writing style is dense and full of detail, but it is simply fun to read; every word of every sentence had my undivided attention, simply because the way in which these words are strung together is so carefully crafted. Often when reading I would stop at a particularly interesting sentence just to think: wow. In a different novel, this extremely detailed prose might be overwhelming, but in a day-long novel like The Biology of Luck, it works quite well.  Appel also uses diction in unexpected ways. Take this sentence, for example, pulled from the eleventh chapter of the novel: “A lost and found would be a boondoggle of a quixote.”  Keep your dictionaries handy while reading this one, folks.

Starshine’s character was another point of interest for me. In the back of my mind was the constant thought that what the reader sees is not the “real” Starshine—it’s Larry’s projection of Starshine as a character in his novel, a unique perspective indeed. Larry stresses Starshine’s extreme beauty—to the point of it hindering her daily life—but I wondered if this was just love clouding the view of the self-proclaimed “unattractive” tour guide. The novel seems to be full of unanswered questions; Even the ending is ambiguous, which, while a turnoff to some readers, was probably the best way to end the book. Open-endedness leaves more room for thought on the part of the reader, and personally, I like it that way.

Fun, quick, clever, and new, The Biology of Luck is worth the read.  

The Biology of Luck
Jacob M. Appel
Elephant Rock Books
October 7, 2013