Sunday, November 28, 2010
Our blog topic for today was brought about after reading an article on Bark about the differences between flash fiction and prose poetry:
I'm not here to take issue with what was written there. Actually, I think a good deal of what Brett says is exactly true and a good introduction to the basic differences between flash fiction and prose poetry. The main difference to me between flash fiction and prose poetry has to do with focus. Flash fiction focuses on story (whether that be character or plot or place or time). Prose poetry focuses on image and/or emotion. This is, as with all definitions that would delineate the two, imperfect, but for my own purposes, that's what I usually go with. And of course, every rule was made to be broken, one just has to know he is breaking it when doing so.
What I want to talk about is something a little closer to home. My own concern with the differences between short-shorts and prose poems has to do with audience. Specifically as relates to a magazine, such as the Bellingham Review. Very short fiction acts in a publication in much the same way as poetry does; it's consumed easily and in a brief time and there are usually a couple or three pieces per author (at least this is how I prefer to consume short-shorts).
This is something to consider as a writer, too. My own writing of late has been much more concerned with short forms than with longer narratives, and I have produced quite a few pieces of prose poetry and a few pieces of what might be better called flash fiction. Stories over, say, 500 words will rarely be confused with prose poetry, but there are masterful practitioners of very short fiction that produce works in the 100-499 word range.
I very much doubt that there is a definitive way to identify and classify these pieces of work. A good analogy seems to me the field of taxonomy. The idea is to take extant and extinct animals and try to place them into groups, to sort the Mice from the Rats, so to speak. For the most part this works well, but every now and then a taxonomist comes along and blinks his eyes like Jeannie and the former Rat is redesignated a Mouse. I think I would feel this way, the same ambivalence, should someone tell me that what I thought was Prose Poetry was instead Flash Fiction. Yes the two are distinguishable, but at times the distinguishing characteristics seem arbitrarily selected (the shape of the ears say, or the length of the sentences) and a look at other parts of the anatomy might bring about the contrary conclusion.
This is not to say that I don't think that discussing the differences is a waste of time. Indeed I spent time reading a blogpost about them and writing one of my own. But I think maybe the larger picture sometimes gets overlooked in the examination of minutiae.
Monday, November 22, 2010
In about an hour I'm going to start an interview with poet Christopher Howell. Chris is the author of eight books of poetry including Light's Ladder, which won the Washington State Book Award, and Dreamless and Possible, publishing in 2010, which is a collection of new and selected poems. Chris has been published widely both regionally and nationally, and has even been published several times in the Bellingham Review. In addition to being a poet, Chris is also an editor and a professor at the Inland Northwest Center for Writers MFA Program in Spokane, WA. I'll be asking him questions about his own poetry, about the state of American small press publishing, and about his role as a teacher.
I'd like to thank Chris for agreeing to do this interview with me. I know you'll all enjoy everything he has to say, as well as all of the other amazing pieces we're going to be publishing in the upcoming Spring 2011 issue.
Saturday, November 13, 2010
As I've already stated here on the blog, I have mixed feelings about the move to a digital format for the reading of books, but I have trouble seeing this announcement, that the NYT is going to track e-book sales and publish an e-book best-sellers list, as anything but a universal good. I'm certain that the best-selling e-books mirror in many ways the best-selling mass market paperbacks and hardbacks (if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that the list would be mainly made up of new hardcover releases and those mass market paperbacks which stay on the list for weeks and weeks), but it's heartening to me that the NYT finds the adoption of this technology to be significant. It's as heartening to me as the addition of graphic novels to their list in 2009 because it means they're paying attention to the trends in book-buying and not just printing a list blindly based on a formula.
One thing I wonder about is how sales tracking will be done. I know the Best Sellers List is calculated by some kind of voodoo, and I'm sure that there will be even more calculated algorithms involved in tracking e-book sales, but it's a concern of mine. For instance, will free e-books be disqualified from the competition? Will there be a price threshold for what constitutes a sale? I'm sure most of my questions won't be answered, as the NYT has a stake in keeping their system opaque, and that's really fine with me. I don't make purchases based off of best sellers lists any more than I make purchases based on the "you might also like..." portion of Amazon.com. Still, it's exciting that this is happening. The article states that the first e-book best-seller lists will show up in early 2011 and I'll be looking forward to seeing that list appear.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
The NonfictioNow conference is the largest gathering of creative nonfiction writers and teachers in the nation. We get a little giddy as hundreds of us converge at the University of Iowa to not only discuss esoteric aspects of our craft, but to reconnect with one another and remember why we’re writers in the first place. Yes, we go to panels with names like “Nonfiction: A Hybrid Genre or a Highly Evolved Form?” or “Holding Back: Privacy and Disclosure in Nonfiction,” but we also go to readings like “Farthest North Nonfiction: Alaska Writers Read” and keynote addresses by such luminaries as Allison Bechdel, Rebecca Solnit, and John Edgar Wideman. We sit at round tables in the Main Lounge and eat mushroom strudel for lunch, or we walk to the Motley Cow and have a dinner while laughing and laughing at the sheer joy of being together.
Not that I’m biased or anything, but one of the most enjoyable events for me was “Literature of Palpable Quality: A Bellingham Review Reading.” The reading was scheduled for 8:45 a.m. on a Friday morning, up against two panels filled with heavy-hitters that I myself longed to see. So I brought with me a box of Bellingham Reviews, hoping to bribe those willing to forego the talking “about” nonfiction and experience some fine nonfiction writing instead.
To my surprise, we did draw a respectable audience, including the one and only Robin Hemley, director of the conference and the previous Editor of the Bellingham Review. Robin was the one to bring the Review under the purview of Western Washington University and to launch the magazine to national prominence, so when I took the reins from him about nine years ago, I was both excited and humbled by the bar he had set. Nine years later, I’m happy to report that we’re still going strong, as evidenced by the reading that unfolded that morning.
I had gathered together Julie Jeanell Leung, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Lauren Smith, and Ira Sukrungruang to represent the wide range of nonfiction we publish in the review. Julie read from her remarkable essay “Moon Snail,” which was a finalist in our Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction. It combines a scientist’s eye for the beauty found in nature, with a sister’s honest ambivalence about her love for her brain-damaged brother. Alexandria’s powerful piece, “In the Fade,” was a winner in the Annie Dillard Award, and it draws on her work as a lawyer for death row appeals, taking cases of those whose guilt is not in question. Lauren’s work as a researcher in Africa, interviewing women who have lost loved ones to AIDS or who have AIDS themselves, formed the basis of her award-winning piece, “The Widow’s Tale.” Ira completed the reading with his beautiful lyric essay, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Fat,” a poem-like piece that draws us into dialogue with Wallace Stevens while it reveals intimate details about the body.
I knew the reading would be good, but I didn’t know how good it would be, until all four readers enacted their pieces on that big stage, in the dim light, their voices bringing to life the words I had previously only heard in my own mind. It felt as though the magazine, itself, was up there, sitting in one of those hard chairs, pouring water into a plastic cup, nodding in approval as each reader showed us how powerful, startling, and persuasive creative nonfiction can be. As the Editor-in-Chief, I know my magazine intimately, but this reading drew me into a deeper relationship with the journal, affirmed for me that literary publishing does matter.
The audience seemed to agree. Not one person left the room (a rarity at literary conferences, where the sheer number of things to do incites a mass case of attention deficit disorder), and they all applauded warmly at the end, with genuine smiles and interest. One person commented that though all the pieces were quite different from one another, they all had something in common: each narrator was struggling to understand something difficult, something that cannot be reduced to easy answers. That, I realize now, is what I look for when scanning the thousands of submissions that come into our office: the essential struggle, one that we can enter with the narrator and come away changed.
I’m returning home in the morning, my suitcase full of new books, magazines, business cards. But the most important thing I’m bringing home is my renewed sense of faith: faith that writing matters, that small journals matter, and that, most important, we matter to one another.
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
My first Creative Writing professor, an overwhelmed grad student with eccentric facial hair, had each student announce their dream jobs. The class was full of aspiring journalists, singer-songwriters, and professional novelists. When it was my turn, I said, “A staff writer for Seinfeld.” The professor informed me that, at the time, that sitcom had been off the air for the better part of a decade and the position was impossible. A dream job, I argued, isn’t supposed to be something we will ever achieve. At the risk of sounding cynical, most writing jobs are dream jobs. This is a tough field we’ve chosen.
Every professor I’ve ever had seemed to relish telling us that we will never, ever, ever make any money from our writing. At least, not a lot of money. And we will certainly never make a living from it. But it’s not cruel to remind the hopeful of failure. The icy-cold shower of reality is very necessary for anyone with big, creative dreams. We, as writers, should never let our imaginations run away with us. Unless it’s on the page, of course.
In On Writing, Stephen King recounts his struggles to get his career started. He describes putting each rejection letter on a nail above his writing desk to keep him motivated. He received at least a hundred before making a sale. Talk about grounding yourself. It’s a romantic image, that young, funny-looking man finding bigger and bigger nails to chronicle his own failure. But then again, when you can end an autobiography with, “And then I wrote a book about an evil car and made a million dollars,” everything sounds romantic.
Writing is solely fueled by optimism, when you think about it, so there’s no reason to become a defeatist. We have to believe there is some kind of future for us, for our craft, or else we’ll just throw our laptop out the window, curl up in a ball, and take a job as an insurance salesman.
I suppose it’s a thin line to walk. It’s important to recognize that the odds are stacked against us, but that’s no reason to give up our dreams. Reach for the stars, but don’t lose perspective. If we have a story to tell, for the love of Cthulhu, tell it. Don’t expect a paycheck, but who knows?