Thursday, September 29, 2011

Words from a Master

"A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight... it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, ‘Simba!’"
~Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard is one of my writing heroes. Partly, it's because I'm an essayist myself and am awed by her command of language and basically every aspect of her craft. I'm also inspired by her willingness to tackle the big topics -- the things most writers seem to leave to the poets. Death. God. Love. (Of course she writes poems, too, so she's got an advantage in that arena.)

But Annie Dillard is also one of my writing heroes because of quotes like the one above -- that woman's got one hell of a personality. If you need additional proof, you need only look at her curriculum vitae. I mean, who includes political affiliation (Democrat, of course!) on a CV? Plus, there's that story one of my professors told about Annie Dillard dancing at a New Yorker party. That endeared me to her, too -- but you'll have to get in touch with John Hildebrand if you want to hear that one. I couldn't do it justice.

Really, though -- if you're not acquainted with Annie Dillard's nonfiction, you should be. First stop? Holy the Firm. And as a follow-up, For the Time Being. You will be positively stunned.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Of Friends, Stones, and Gratitude

You know, you just know who your friends are, because they are always there when you need them. They call you on your shit. They knock sense into you when you need it.

You know someone is your friend when they will drive a long way to get you from the airport, sit with you and have one more glass of wine, cheer you up on the way into work by giving you a feather, or bring you chocolate unexpectedly in the middle of the afternoon.

I just spent about an hour reading back over the 14 months of this blog. I was so touched by our innocence and enthusiasm for what we have undertaken. We have come a rather long way in this last year. We have done a variety of rather amazing things. We have grown. We have gotten better at what we do. The thing is, we only did this because we had each other. We could not have done this thing alone.

My post could be viewed as only a very self-referential comment on one project set upon by four individuals. But, because all truly good writing is universal, please apply what I am saying to yourself. Forget the writing. Make this universal. Think about where you were one year ago, and where you are now. Use that information to project where you will be a year from now.

There is no telling. We cannot say what the world will be like a year from now. And, sadly, we can't even guarantee that any particular one of us will be here or not be here. Therefore, let me remind you, the most important thing you can do on any given day is be kind to the people around you. Love the people you are close to. Appreciate the people who drive you nuts. They especially, need your love and attention. Anyone could be gone tomorrow. We just simply do not know.

In the meantime, love, laugh, write, read, sing, dance, walk, play, cook, share. Yes. Please share. That is really all there is to do. They taught us this when we were very small. They were right. Why would we ever stop?

Thank you, my dear co-editors, for an amazing year of growth, love, support, food, and sharing. To Signe, Jim, and Rob: I have never had so much fun or creative satisfaction as I have when I am working with the three of you. You guys are the bees knees.

That is, miraculous.

By the way, I noticed in reading through this entire blog that we have not a single entry from Jim. Now, Jim. I know we put you in charge of the Greek rolls, the 53,000 calorie per-unit carrot cake, and the kick-ass double chocolate brownies, (oh my God, and the apple pie! How could I forget the apple pie???) but let's face it, you write as good as you cook (which seems nearly impossible) and now I am requesting, as your fellow editor, that you please post to the blog sometime soon. I think all of us would like to read your words.

In the meantime, to all the writers out there, please keep writing and please keep submitting to Stoneboat. We have the boat, we need your stones. Without all of you, there are no stones to carry.

All the best,

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Changing the World, One Poem at a Time

Since last spring, I have been getting to know a group of poets from all over the world on Facebook, thanks to the efforts of San Francisco Bay-area poet, Michael Rothenberg, and his amazing project, 100 Thousand Poets for Change.

For months now, Michael and his partner, Terri Carrion, have been spreading the word around the world, cheering us all on, inspiring, encouraging, connecting, and promoting the idea that poetry has the power to change us for the better. The plan is to hold the largest simultaneous poetry reading in the world on September 24. There are over 600 individual events planned in 450 cities in 95 countries. This truly boggles the mind.

Each day, those of us who took on the mantle of "organizer" receive communications from Michael that alert us to new cities that have signed on. Today, we read on the "Hub" of the addition of "Liguria, Italy! Belleville, Ontario, Canada! Marlboro, VT! Bath, Great Britain! Ames, Iowa!"

In Sheboygan, the editors of Stoneboat are teaming up with Mead Public Library, Bookworm Gardens, Paradigm Coffee and Music, the Great Lakes Writers Festival, and Seems Magazine / Word of Mouth Press to present a day of poetry intended to remind the community of the transformative power of words. The poet laureate of Wisconsin, Bruce Dethlefsen will read at 10:00 a.m. at the library, and other Wisconsin poets will join us throughout the day including Cathryn Cofell, Chuck Rybak, and Karl Elder. There is an open mic reading from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. at Paradigm. That means open to everyone! If you don't write poetry you can read a poem by someone else. Or you can just listen. Check here for a complete schedule of the day.

Elsewhere in Wisconsin, there are events in Milwaukee and Madison. Check the official website for more information about events all around the world.

It is hard to express what is like to look at amazing promotional posters made by artists in Macedonia or to read the words of poets in Mexico, Greece, Nigeria, Chile, Australia, India, not to mention cities all over the U.S. on a daily basis. The scope of the project is huge and the energy is palpable.

One could almost imagine that the world is on the verge of changing, one poem at a time.

And, one last treat to inspire you, if you are not already moved, check out this video collaboration between Ellis Ebakor (Warri, Nigeria), Larry Weiss (Nashville) and Terri Carrion.

I hope to see you and 100,000 other poets for change somewhere in the world on September 24!
All the best,

Friday, September 2, 2011

Send Shit Out Night

I have been submitting my work to literary journals since 2003 (although only recently have they begun to publish me; the photo at right depicts my stack of rejection letters next to the seventh Harry Potter book, for scale, and these are only the hard copy rejections -- there are plenty more that have come via email*). As someone who has been playing the submission game for quite a while, I've created a system. I read the ads in Poets & Writers and The Writer's Chronicle to find journals that my work seems to fit. I check their guidelines online, then address the cover letter. I print my essay. I use my best handwriting on a large manila envelope and the SASE tucked inside, record the submission on a spreadsheet (a hard copy, even!), mail those over-sized envelopes after standing in a long line at the post office, and then wait anywhere from several weeks to 18 months for a response.

Some of my best memories of graduate school are centered around this system -- or maybe it's more accurate to think of it as a ritual. My roommate and I would sit cross-legged on the dingy living room carpet, surrounded by envelopes, highlighters, pens, stamps, and stacks of writing magazines. We always had a laptop on the coffee table, too, so we could Google the journals where we hoped our work might find a home. We'd make suggestions to one another, too: "Your barn story sounds like a good match for Writing Contest X" or "Journal Y is doing a memory theme for the fall issue, so maybe you could send your museum essay." We did this about once a month; we called it "Send Shit Out Night," and it was a way to hold ourselves accountable. It made us feel like writers, and it made us feel like we just might be able to shed the "MFA student" label and take on the "published writer" label.

For a long time after moving out of that apartment, I continued to hold "Send Shit Out Night" on my own, just with fewer magazines and not as many envelopes. In recent years, though, the office supplies have worked their way out of my ritual and the laptop has taken on a more central role because most journals have begun to take electronic submissions. This makes sense for a lot of reasons. From the writer's perspective, the process is far less laborious. It's also a lot cheaper -- no more stamps, envelopes, paper, or printer ink. And from the journal's perspective, there are fewer SASEs to keep track of, essay pages to keep in order, manuscripts to recycle, and rejection notices to print and sign and mail.

In the last year or so, I've noticed that many journals have either eliminated paper submissions entirely or added a note to their guidelines that reads something like this: "Strong preference for electronic submissions." And that, from the writer perspective, makes me sad. I comply because I don't want to be on an editor's bad side just because I sent a hard copy, but I prefer -- I enjoy -- the hard copy submission. It feels more substantial to send my words into the world on a sheet of paper; my essays feel more real when they physically exist. Hard copy submissions also make me feel like I'm putting in a more honest attempt at this whole "I'm a writer" endeavor.

Email submissions and submission manager submissions make me feel like I'm half-assing it; anyone can fire off an email or upload a document (the Stoneboat email inbox is proof), but it takes real dedication to hand-address a dozen 10x13 envelopes, and a serious attitude to spend $1.50 to mail each one off to a journal (plus the $.44 for the SASE). I kept track of all my submission receipts in 2007. Between envelopes and postage, I spent nearly $100 just to mail my submissions. Let's break that down: I spent $100 to publish one essay, for which I was paid with two contributor copies (roughly a $10 value).

But as much as I love hard copy submissions as a writer, I am not so keen on them from the editorial perspective. When Stoneboat receives a hard copy submission, I have to digitize it so that all of our editors have access to it, I have to make sure not to lose the SASE, I usually have to print and sign a rejection letter, I have to write a return address on the envelopes. Individually, none of these tasks take much time, nor do they put a major wrinkle in my day. They are minor -- and infrequent -- interruptions in the fabric of my editorial work. But when I add up all of those brief interruptions, each hard copy submission takes up a lot more of my time than its electronic counterpart. When I see a 10x13 manila envelope poking out of my mailbox, I internally sigh. Yes, even though the hard copies have yielded some good stuff that has made its way into our pages.

My experience editing Stoneboat has, in just over a year, made me revise my writer mindset. I am trying to cultivating a love for the ease of electronic submission. I remind myself that it's both faster and cheaper to submit electronically. That sometimes the turn-around time is quicker. That I don't have to stand in line at the post office. These are pluses. Big pluses. I have gotten to the point where, when I see the "electronic submission preferred" line, I comply without bemoaning the loss of my old tradition.

Whenever I come across a stubborn journal that requires paper submissions, though, I get excited. It's a lot more satisfying to hold my manuscript and savor the crisp paper smell while I'm standing in line at the post office than it is to hit "send" on my email while I'm simultaneously checking Facebook and shuffling my way through an iTunes play list. There's something to be said for doing it old school, no matter how many trees die in the process.**

*One of my undergrad writing professors told me not to expect to get published until I'd received about 100 rejections. I don't know if she was being facetious or not, but I accumulated at least that many before my first acceptance.

**With apologies to Jim, our very environmentally-conscious editor.