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Friday, February 25, 2011

Dzanc You Very Much

A few years ago I sent a poetry manuscript around to a number of contests and open reading periods, and was a finalist or semi-finalist in about a third of the places I had submitted to. But I didn't find a publisher. One of the contest judges sent me a note saying that I had the strongest poems in their contest, but the overall quality of my manuscript was uneven. The results seemed to indicate that I was close to having a solid manuscript, but I was at a loss as to how to make that leap. Living in Japan, being sort of isolated, and not having a critique group to help me, I wasn't sure what to do.

I decided to cut the manuscript in half, and keep only the strongest of the poems. Then I added in a cycle of 30 poems that I had been working on during the year my manuscript had made the rounds. But I wasn't sure if the new cycle made my manuscript better or worse.

Serendipitiously, a writer in an online writing support group I belong to mentioned the Dzanc Creative Writing Sessions. I was immediately intrigued because Dzanc Books has published a few poets and short story writers I hugely admire, in particular Stefi Weisburd (under the Black Lawrence Press Imprint), Terese Svoboda, and Shellie Zacharia (under the Keyhold Press Imprint).

The Dzanc Creative Writing Sessions, hereafter denoted DCWS, were offered online at the incredible rate of $50 for 4 hours of critiquing by a writer of one's choice. The reason they are able to offer such an insanely low price for this valuable service is that the writers donate their time, and the revenue generated goes into Dzanc's literary program. It's a situation in which everyone wins! (By the way, 1-hour and 2-hour sessions are also available for $20 and $30 respectively.)

So I looked at the list of poets participating in the DCWS, and while I found two whose work I loved, I immediately knew I wanted the advice of the uber-talented Michele Battiste, a poet who weaves math and science into many of her poems, something I have a tendency to do as well. Check out Michele's blog here.(The other poet who caught my eye was Brent Goodman, in case you were wondering.)

So Michele Battiste gave me four hours of acute attention, lots of line edits, an overarching view of what she thought I was doing in my series, and a request to see poems more since she hadn't used up all of my 4 hours yet, despite the detailed nature of her help. The experience was absolutely invaluable for me, especially living in the poetry hinterlands as I do.

So when I sent my manuscript out again, I had no trouble finding a publisher, and when withdrawing it from the other places I had sent it to, I was told that it had made it to the finals in a number of cases and even had been selected as a winner in a contest the very morning I withdrew it from consideration.

All of this absolutely came to be due to the fine critiquing of Michele Battiste under the auspices of the DCWS, which I cannot recommend enough.

If you've had a critique online or via email or snail mail, with a poet or writer you don't personally know, I'd love to hear your experience.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fifth Annual Japan Writers Conference call for presentation proposals

This year the Japan Writers Conference will be held in Kobe, my fair city. I'm very excited about this, as it means I may possibly be able to attend more than the number of days (zero or one) I've attended each of the previous four conferences.

I received the email below with a call for presentation proposals a week or so ago; sorry for being so slow to spread the news.

I have deleted the contact information of the organizers, for privacy reasons, but if you want to contact them, let me know and I will give you their details.

Okay, here begins the forwarded message:


This is to announce the Fifth Annual Japan Writers Conference. It will be in Kobe this year at Kobe Shion Women's University on October 15th and 16th. Please mark your calander and plan to join us.

This is also a call for presentation proposals. All published writers,
translators, editors, agents and publishers who would like to lead a session are invited to submit proposals. Those who have presented at past conferences are(of course) welcome to submit new proposals. But we especially encourage proposals from new submitters. One of the strengths of the past Conferences has been variety, and the best way to foster variety is to feature new presenters each year.

Please forward this to any friend or colleague who would be interested. If you know someone the conference organizers might approach—either living in Japan or planning to visit Japan next fall—please send us your suggestion. If you have contact information, that would be a great help.

Detailed information follows, but briefly, a proposal needs to include a brief bio, including publication credits, the type of presentation you wish to make, a title, a summary of 50 words, a longer abstract (150 words) and any special requests you might have. Standard sessions are fifty minutes long, but if you have something special in mind, please let us know and we will accommodate if possible.

Presentations on all genres and all aspects of writing and publishing are welcome. The deadline for presentation proposals is June 1, 2011.

As in the past, the Conference will be free and open to all who wish to attend. This is possible because all the presenters and organizing staff volunteer their time and talent, and the use of the site is donated by the hosting institution. As a result, the Conference cannot offer any payment, reimbursement, lodging, or help in securing visas or travel permits. So please don't ask.

Proposal Guidelines

When planning your proposal, keep your audience in mind. Your listeners will be writers and others, such as translators, editors, publishers, and agents, concerned with creating the published written word. While teaching, literary studies and private self-expression are certainly worthy activities, they are not the focus of this Conference. Ask yourself as a writer or other word professional these questions:

What information do you have which could be useful to others?
What writing, rewriting, editing, or marketing techniques have worked for you?
What topic would make for a lively and enlightening discussion?
What publishing or other professional opportunities do you know about?
What will an attendee take away from your fifty-minute session that he or she will find worthwhile?

You may submit more than one proposal.

The only qualification one needs to be a presenter is to have published. This does not mean that you need to have published a lot or in some high-profile journal. Your book (if you have a book) does not have to be on a best seller list. You do not have to have won any awards or to have appeared on TV. You simply need to have written, edited, translated, or otherwise worked on a piece of writing which has made it to the public eye. That is, published.

Proposal Deadline and Format

Using the following format, please send your ideas for a presentation by June 1, 2011. Send your proposal in the body of an email (no attachments) to both these addresses:

(I have deleted these, as noted above. Jessica)

In your subject line give your name, "JWC," and the date.

In the body of the email, give:

1. Your name (or names)
2. Contact information (email, telephone. These remain confidential.)
3. Your publications (Need not be complete, but give names of journals and genre for short pieces; title, publisher and date for books; venues and dates for plays, and so on)
4. Title of presentation. (20 words or less)
5. Type of presentation (short lecture with Q&A, craft workshop, panel discussion, reading with Q&A, etc.)
6. Short summary of the presentation (50 words or less)
7. Abstract of the presentation (150 words or less)
8. Personal and professional biography (50 words or less. Include mention of your publications, as this will be part of the Conference program)
9. Anything else, such as special equipment needs or questions.

Your proposal doesn't have to be a "finished" document to submit. There will be time to shape and polish your ideas for a presentation. But there are a set number of session slots available and if you are interested in having one of them, please let us know soon. Again, the deadline is June 1, 2011.

John Gribble
Bern Mulvey
Co Co-ordinators,
2011 Japan Writers Conference

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Where the Hell is Wakamatsu Koen?

Do you remember the video that went viral on Youtube a few years ago (and then the update, and its update) featuring a guy dancing his way around the world, dancing badly but with great gusto? If you don't remember, check out Where the Hell is Matt? right here.

So good news! Matt will be dancing in Kobe on Friday, the 26th, yes, that's this Friday, at 5 pm at Wakamatsu Koen. So....forget where the hell is Matt? Where the hell is Wakamatsu Koen? You know the giant tetsujin (robot statue) a couple of stories high (you can see it from the train)--that's where. Meet just under the giant robot. (That's JR Shinnagata Station.)

Here's the Facebook Event Page.

Matt will be dancing in Kyoto on Saturday (Fushimi Inari Shrine at 10 am) and Tokyo on Sunday too (Fuji TV Bldg in Odaiba at 11 am), so it won't be only Kobe-ites who have all the fun. He's going to be teaching his dance steps, and you'll have to give permission (by a thumbs up or something) to be videotaped. The whole thing should last about 30 minutes.

Here's the Facebook event page for Kyoto

and for Tokyo.

I'm going to try to make it to the Kobe one. Hope to see some of you there!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Art of Losing Control

When I was a graduate student, one of my roommates, an aeronautical engineer, asked me to have a look at her data, which she was trying to fit to a (nonlinear) curve.

"I'm having boundary problems," she sighed.

I was in the social sciences department, but had had enough higher math so that as long as my roommate reduced her problems to equations, formulae, or statistical analyses, I could comment on them, though I had no idea what they meant in reality. So I gamely had a look at her data.

Another roommate, a chemist, overheard us talking and asked, "What's a boundary problem?"

"Data and functions tend to misbehave, if at all, at the boundaries," I explained.

"Like people," one of my roommates added, and we all cracked up.

In the classic text Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Shunryu Suzuki observed, "To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him. So it is with people: first, let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them."

So it goes with data, functions, sheep, cows, and people. If you give them enough space, they will contentedly do their own thing; they will be predictable and thus "in control". However, if you want to make something happen, if you want to liven things up by introducing chaos and disarray (so often harbingers of creativity), you merely need to put in a boundary.

This has often been my experience with poetry too. If I want something interesting to happen in a poem, I need a constraint. Or two. Maybe I need to write in a formal structure, such as the villanelle or sonnet, or choose to use only one-syllable words, or never use the letter "e". Sometimes placing limitations on subject matter is useful: I may require myself to interweave the names of the planets in our solar system with the reasons I broke up with a boyfriend of yore (and do I include Pluto or not, since it counted as a planet at the time of the break-up?).

This week, however, I put two seemingly reasonable but interesting constraints on a poem I was working on. For two stanzas, everything went swimmingly. Then, in the third stanza, the poem rolled over and died. Let's skip this part for now, I thought to myself, and went on to the fourth stanza. Still no visible sign of life. What happened, I wondered, to my system of boundary implementation?

Then I remembered the deadening effect of predicatable rhyme: "hour" followed maddeningly, inescapably, by "flower" or "shower." And I remembered the Beat poets, the explosiveness and volatility so evident in their meandering free verse.(Of course, the poet Donald Hall said,"The form of free verse is as binding and as liberating as the form of a rondeau.")

Both binding and liberating, that's the essence of a boundary, or of a good boundary anyway. And so, these days I'm thinking that it's more about the art of losing control, than the the science of losing control.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Community of Creativity

Yesterday my friend Cat posted the following on her Facebook status: Handmade 2011: I promise to send something handmade to the first 5 people who comment here. In return, they must post this to their status, offering the same thing to 5 other people. The rules are, it must be made by hand by you and it must... be sent to your 5 people sometime in 2011. Ready, set, GO.

Even though I'm craft-challenged, I signed up. Mostly because of all the fun and inspiration I've enjoyed in the past couple of years participating in the Poetry Postcard Project. For those of you who don't know what that is, it's a list of people's snail-mail addresses, and each person on the list commits to sending original poems (written for the occasion, not pre-existing poems) on postcards to a certain number of people on the list within a certain time frame. I have participated twice in year-long projects, in which a poem a week was sent out as well as received, and once in the August project, in which a poem is sent out and received daily for a month (guess which one!). The projects I have participated in were started by poets Lana Ayers and Paul Nelson, and for more information, you can check the Poetry Postcard blog.

Living in Japan, I suffer from a lack of creative community in which English is the first language. I belong to a lovely online group of women each with a connection to Japan who are all writing in English, but we work in such diverse fields that the support is mostly moral as opposed to craft-oriented. For awhile I was part of a group that met once every month or so here in the Kansai area, but we had to travel so far for gatherings that it died a natural death. When my husband was doing his post-doc in Florida, I belonged to a terrific community writing group that I still miss some seven years later, but other than that, I've never had much of a community of creativity.

I used to think it didn't matter, not having a community of poets or writers around me, but then I read in a book about writing groups that their primary purpose is to save each writer time. The book argued that you would eventually discover your own strengths and weaknesses, writing alone, but that what it might take you 10 years to figure out someone in a writing group could tell you today. Having enjoyed such insight from my Florida group, I've fully come to adopt that opinion as my own. And besides, it's so much fun to spend time with creative people.

Luckily, in the age of the internet, I can make my own community out of groups like the Poetry Postcad Projects, and can further feel a part of something larger by reading and engaging in the blogosphere, and by availing myself of podcasts (which I will post about in more detail another time). And I can respond to invitations like Cat's, even though I'm about as crafty as a box of macaroni and cheese. (Don't ask me what that means, I don't know.)

As a person living abroad, I praise the internet!

Monday, February 14, 2011


"Erasure is as important as writing." Quintilian

I was going to call this post "Embracing Erasing" but I noticed that four of the eight titles I have used so far are gerund phrases. I do love a good gerund phrase, but enough is enough.

So a few weeks ago I was listening to a podcast of the poet Mary Ruefle speaking at the Lunch Poems series at UC Berkeley on 4/19/2006. Besides reading some of her glorious poems, she discussed how disappointed she was that many people don't take her erasure poems as seriously as her other poems.

(Stop. What is an erasure poem? A writer takes an already finished text (hers or, more likely, someone else's) and deletes words until she is happy with what is left, and calls it a poem. In Ruefle's case, she takes Wite-Out corrective fluid to pages culled from old books.)

This caught my attention because I take erasure poems less seriously than other poems, but I am a huge fan of Mary Ruefle's work, and was willing to listen to her defense of them. Which was basically this: that erasure mimics the memory process, which deletes bits and pieces till the memory that we are left with (or the poem) is a remnant of what really happened (or was written). Give any two individuals/writers a memory/text, and what they eventually are left with will be an uniquely personal memory/poem. (In the spirit of the argument about memory, I have purposefully not gone back and listened to the podcast again before writing this post, so it is entirely possible that I have remembered Ruefle's argument all wrong. Therefore, anyone serious about this topic should click on the link I provided to iTunes-U above and listen to the podcast for herself.)

Shortly after listening to this podcast, I got my hands on the book Newspaper Blackout by the unlikely-named writer Austin Kleon. Here is how NPR's Morning Edition described Kleon's process: "Instead of starting with a blank page, poet Austin Kleon grabs the New York Times and a permanent market and eliminates the words he doesn't need."

Kleon's book begins with a charming history of erasure using the newspaper. It all began, according to him, in the 1760s with Caleb Whitefoord, who was (among other distinctions) a former next-door neighbor to Benjamin Franklin. Kleon then catalogs a brief history of 250 years of erasure poetry in Paris, London, and San Francisco, among other places. The poets use texts such as the Bible, Paradise Lost, bits of Shakespeare, and Emily Dickenson's work, to name a few. Many of them use scissors to cut the texts apart and reassemble them (a lack of Wite-Out and black markers being a characteristic of the mid 1700s).

Next Kleon gives us examples of his own work, some of which can be seen on his website. Lastly he gives tips on making your own erasure poems. He even recommends a kind of marker to use, and sections of the newspaper that have been especially fruitful for him (he favors the Arts and Metro sections.) These tips are also available on his blog, along with a link to a YouTube video demonstrating the erasure process.

But back to Mary Ruefle's argument. Does the form of an erasure poem mimic the form of memories? I think, yes. But the process of reaching the culled memory is far less deliberate than the process of writing an erasure poem. So while the analogy breaks down for me (and remember, I may not be recalling Ruefle's argument correctly anyway, but that's part of the fun of this post) I still gained enough appreciation for the finished work to want to try erasure poems for myself.

I haven't done so yet though. But if I get any interesting results, I'll post them here. And if you decide to try it and get something worthwhile, please do share as well. Likewise if you have any thoughts on erasure (or any corrections as to how I represented the podcast of Mary Ruefle at the Lunch Poem series.)

Update: More erasure links here.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Fear Not

Recently my 10-year-old asked me what I am afraid of. Because I wanted him to know that everybody is afraid, and that it's okay to feel that way, I gave him a few examples of my own fears. "Tsunamis," I told him (a subject of my nightmares since childhood), "and my children getting lost."

What I didn't tell him is my biggest fear: the future and everything in it.

As the luminous Anne Carson wrote in The Anthrolopogy of Water, "I wanted to find one law to cover all of living. I found fear."

Maybe there are some people out there who genuinely feel no fear, even on the deepest most secret, almost unreachable, level, but so far I haven't met any.

This week I was listening to an radio interview with the nature writer Terry Tempest Williams (whose 1991 memoir Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place is astonishing), in which the writer's own words were quoted back to her: "...remember fear for what it is: a resistance to the unknown."

While the sentiment is not new, the wording struck me deeply. This is a quote with the potential to change my life, if I let it.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Creating Time to Create

In an email to a writer friend the other day, I was reminded of an incident that helped me learn to free up more time to write.

I am a clean freak; I always have been. I used to vacuum the whole house not once a day, but twice. That's right, twice a day. My friend Anne mentioned this obsession of mine to her mother, who asked if I wore glasses. When Anne replied that I did, her mother suggested that I be advised take them off. She said it would cut my workload right in half.

When Anne reported this conversation to me, I laughed. People had told me that having kids would cure my fixation with cleaning, but having messy little ones around only encouraged my mania. So I did not think removing my glasses would help, but I was willing to give it a try.

Guess what? Eight years later and I vacuum every other day, only once. I never wear my glasses in the house (when I accidentally do, I am horrified and spend the next two days polishing and scrubbing like mad). But my house is acceptably clean, it really is. I have never gotten a complaint from anyone, and in fact continue to be complimented on the cleanliness of my home when people visit (and I let visitors wear their glasses in the house!) I just don't run for the vacuum or dust cloth every time a thread drops on the carpet or end table. And the only reason is because I can't see it. If I could.....

So if you need more time to devote to your creative endeavors, take your glasses off (metaphorically, of course). Turn off your internet connection, your cell phone, your vacuum, whatever it is you know you spend too much time on. It won't kill you. I know, because it didn't kill me, and I really thought it might.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Leaping While Sleeping

When I was a graduate student, I would sometimes be assigned a difficult mathematical proof to present to the class. There was one that I had worked on for days, but the night before the presentation I was still stuck at a crucial step. I had a copy of the finished proof (I'd been given the paper expositing it, and was to explain it to the class in lieu of their having to slog through it), and if I skipped over that one step, I could explain everything after it, as well as before it. But that one step eluded me, and the paper offered no explanation for a highly convoluted line of mathematical symbols which seemed unrelated to anything that came previously.

At 3 am, I gave up and went to bed, slightly horrified, because as the only woman in the entire graduate program, I particularly hated to fail in front of my peers. When I awoke in the morning, I knew the answer. I just woke up with it in my head. It was a brilliant piece of symbolic manipulation necessary to force the proof to its end. Later, when presenting the proof to the class, I impressed even the professor who admitted that he also had not been able to figure out that particular leap between lines.

This has happened to me several times with regards to proofs or math problems, and a few more times when I was working as a financial analyst. My subconscious mind (or perhaps my unconscious mind--I asked a psychiatrist friend once what the difference was and he replied, Well, that's the million-dollar question) can solve things that my conscious mind cannot.

Do poets have this ability to access the not-conscious mind too? Apparently they do. In an interview with the UK Guardian in December of 2006, the poet Anne Carson (my hero) said, "I don't know that we really think any thoughts; we think connections between thoughts. That's where the mind moves, that's what's new, and the thoughts themselves have probably been there in my head or lots of other people's heads for a long time. But the jumps between them are entirely at that moment."

I suspect that many poets can access those jumps, have those moments, when they are awake. I, however, cannot, at least not yet. I suffer from the overly rational mind as described by Sir Rabindranath "Tagore" Thakur: "A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it."

So I have learned to access my not-conscious mind, which is so much more resourceful than my conscious mind, in sleep. However, I cannot force it. It doesn't work unless I have exhausted every possible avenue my conscious mind can attempt in my waking hours. And even then, it doesn't always work. When insight like that comes, it's a gift.

Dreams are a well-known source of creativity. Many scientific discoveries were first seen in dreams: the helical structure of DNA was first seen by James Watson in a dream, for example. I know poets also commonly use the imagery of their dreams in their work. But what I want to know is this: all you poets out there, can you access your not-conscious mind in the waking state? Can you make those genuinely astounding intuitive leaps without resorting to sleep? And if so, how? And by how, I mean not only how does it happen, but also how do you stimulate that kind of access organically? What rituals do you have, if any, that lead to these kinds of soaring leaps in your thinking? Seriously, I'd like answers to this, if you've got them.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Calling All Bards of the Binary Code

Are you equally comfortable with Linux and linebreaks? If so, this post is for you.

Poetic use of mathematics and science as both topic and literary device has been around for quite some time. For a classic compendium, see Verse and Universe: Poems About Science and Mathematics, compiled by Kurt Brown (Milkweed Editions). In the past few years, Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics, edited by Sarah Glaz and JoAnne Growney (AK Peters), has also come on the scene. The latter editor also has one of the better blogs on the subject, compiling poems and briefly introducing the thinking or history behind them, at Intersections--Poetry With Mathematics.

I have to admit, however, that I am not as familiar with the blending of computers/computer science and poetry. Recently I was directed to the following site, Thinking Machines, run by Neil Aitken, editor of Boxcar Poetry Review. Here Aitken is soliciting poems for an anthology about computers, programming, and poetry. Neil Aitken is presently working on his PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at USC, but in a previous incantation he was a programmer, so he's the go-to guy for all things on this subject. He even has suggestions to stimulate your thinking about this mix of topics on the website cited above.

If you have a poem relating to programming and poetry, OR if you are a programmer and a poet who's written poems on any subject, you are invited to submit. So check it out.

And if you have a favorite book of/about poetry and math/science/computing, let me know! I'd love to hear about it.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Ditching the Prompt

Although I used to generate all the ideas for my poems by myself, the time finally came when I began to use prompts to stimulate my creativity. In the past year or so, I have enjoyed using prompts supplied by Robert Lee Brewer for his April PAD Challenge (Poem-A-Day Challenge) and have also have tried some offered by Molly Fisk on Facebook (search for "Molly Fisk - Writer, Teacher, Speaker" and "friend" her to get more information).

Earlier this month I received a thoughtful rejection from an editor who found a poem I had submitted "began on the 5th line," rather than where I had started it. When I had a look, I saw that the first four lines were a direct response to a writing prompt, but on line five, the poem took off in its own direction. I needed to jettison the writing prompt, which had given me a good start but had finally been outgrown; however it took the keen eye of an editor to point this out to me. (Eventually I rewrote the first four lines, and am happy to report the revised poem was accepted for publication by the very same insightful editor.)

Sometimes writing prompts become part of the medium, the very essence of a poem, and sometimes they remain merely a tool, a launching site. Sometimes writing prompts make up the integrity of a piece, like the paint in a painting, and sometimes they are the paintbrush, a tool to get the painting made. In the latter case, when it's time to display the final piece, the writing prompt, like a paintbrush, needs to be put back in the drawer. But the brushstrokes, the ghostly outlines of the prompt, remain.

Which reminds me of this classic poem by Frank O'Hara (1926-1966):

Why I Am Not a Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.

So how do you know when to keep the lines generated by the writing prompt, and when to jettison them? I don't know yet. I just know that in the future I'll be careful when considering my "final" version of a piece generated by a prompt. I'll look to see whether the lines responding directly to the prompt have become an integral part of the medium or have remained a tool, and decide what to do then.

Kudos for Judy

Check out this insightful review in the Japan Times of Judy Halebsky's debut full-length poetry collection, Sky=Empty, winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize 2009 (New Issues Poetry & Prose). Reviewer Steve Finbow puts Judy's work in historical perspective, and he showcases a few of Judy's inimitable lines. Well worth your time to have a look!