Saturday, September 29, 2012

Writer Envy

          As a poet, I sometimes am aware of the envy of other writers.  It happens mostly at book festivals and events that have multiple authors.  Perhaps it’s not something we want to admit or talk about – the dirty laundry of the industry – but it’s understandable.  The fact is that other writers can be jealous because, as a poet, I get the perks of being an author– the cachet and respect and business cards – without having to do a lot of the promotional drudgery.
            I’ve shared book signing tables with Maya Angelou, Orson Scott Card, and, most recently, Gillian Flynn who wrote Gone Girl.  Writers like these have to deal with long lines of people who keep asking them to do things; they have to sign books, answer questions, and agree to photos.  They have to sit there for hours.  I suspect they suffer from calluses on their autographing hands, repetitive stress injuries, and dry throats.  I worry about no such health problems.
            I look at those lines and pity the writers.  Poor Maya Angelou.  Poor Orson Scott Card.  And I think, “Thank god, those people are not here to see me.”  As my wife and children know, I hate to be asked to do things, and, as my colleagues know, I’m terrible at small talk.  Luckily, as a poet, it’s not a problem.  At any event, there will be only a couple of people bothering me about my books.  This leaves me lots of free time to text, do crosswords, stare and make faces at the people in the lines to either side of me.  Sometimes I lay out a small picnic.  Sometimes I even do some writing.  I’m not one of those writers who complain they can’t find time to write; it’s easy for me.  I just set up a signing.
            I sense the irritation of the other authors.  They have to work hard, while I get to be there and call myself a writer as well.  And, often my photo is even as big as theirs!  I want to tell them that it’s not my fault they picked the wrong genre, but I realize it’s not always a choice.  Some people write novels because they can’t write poetry.
            So, although we smile at one another, there’s the frank truth about authors.  They envy me, and I feel sorry for them. While they have to worry about mundane concerns like royalties, agents, and their position on the best seller lists, I am free to live the life of the mind and concentrate on what is important like mastering another level of angry birds.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Few Recent Questions and Comments at Poetry Readings and Workshops

-       My child’s teacher has assigned a 25 page paper.  How do you feel about that?

-       What do you think of grammar?

-       Do you really think about every word [in a poem]?

-       Have you ever tried to write novels or real books?

-       I’m not buying your book.  I’m buying his book instead.  Yours looks good, but I’m not buying it.

-       Well, your reading was  . . . unexpected.

-       If I do write a poem, how much will I get paid for it?

-       That poem didn’t really take years to write, did it?

-       I’m thinking of buying one of your books for my husband.  He doesn’t really like poetry. Which one do you think I should get?

And finally a question that I felt comfortable answering.

-       I don’t think it’s poetry if it doesn’t rhyme.  What do you think of that?
-       I think you shouldn’t buy my books.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Questions For Betsy Towns, Sculptor

Betsy Towns teaches Art History  at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Her sculptures appear in public and private collections around the US including major installations owned by the city of Charlotte, NC. Her recent work -- ceramic and mixed media installations --  is now being shown under the title Recapturing Childhood at the Red Sky Gallery in Charlotte, North Carolina.

How would you describe what you do?  
My most important mentor in sculpture is Xavier Toubes, who now works at the Art Institute in Chicago. He took my work seriously before I felt brave enough to take it seriously, and that made a huge difference in the way I valued what I made. In his lovely Spanish accent, he announced to me one day, “You are a maker of things.” It doesn’t sound so significant in my own tones, but it certainly approaches a description the activity in my studio. I make objects, carefully but playfully, and set a variety of stages for the objects to work with and against each other to create meaning. It takes a mouthful for me to say what Xavier said in six words.
Is this different than what other people think you do?
Yes. People see me teaching much more than they see me in the studio. Sometimes I find it easier to say, “I teach Art History,” than “I’m an Artist,” with all the baggage that word totes. More and more, I think of myself as artist first, but I don’t always claim that.
How do you know if you’re on the right track with a project?
When I can’t make myself leave the studio.
How do you go about making choices? 
Many ways. I do a lot of sketching, take photos of work in progress to get a little distance and see a little more clearly what adjustments I should make, and I play with the things I make: put them on wheels, on spring, on see-saws and on each other. I bring them in the house and live with them a bit. I think about the work before I fall asleep and sometimes wake up with solutions.
How do you know when you’re done?
One of my favorite artists is Joseph Cornell. Both his life and his work (meticulously crafted habitats for found objects) fascinate me. He gave many of his pieces away as gifts (to Susan Sontag, Lauren Bacall, a few ballerinas, and others he loved from afar). Sometimes, though, he would go to their houses and take the work back, either because he realized the piece was not finished, or because he no longer felt they should have the piece. I don’t go that far. My work is finished when it sells. Until then, it moves around, tries on clothes, gets a new set of wheels.
What’s your workspace like?
I have a little wooden shed in the back yard—six feet by ten—with a porch about the same size, a lean-to shed to house the kiln, and a large work table in the yard. I like best to work outside, and just have the tiny indoor space to protect my materials and work on the coldest days. 
What are your essential tools? 
My hands, my eyes and my kiln. I also like to use spoons and forks and a few pencil-shaped pieces of wood.
What’s the most surprising tool you use? 
When I go to the dentist, I ask for their cast-aside tooth-cleaning tools. Stainless steel picks with various curved points, all terrifying.
What was your biggest mistake or the one you learned the most from? 

Taking a real job. I keep learning so much from teaching, though, that I keep teaching.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

My First Publication

This entry first appeared as a guest blog at David Abrams’ “The Quivering Pen.”

            The writer Fred Chappell  has said, “If you’re lucky, you’ll be rejected the first 1000 times.  That will teach you to persevere.  Get the first poems that you submit published, and you’re dead meat.”  In my case, he was wrong.  The first place that I ever sent work to accepted it, and it was the best thing that could have happened.
            As a junior in college in 1986, I had just begun to write poetry as part of a creative writing course.  However, I had been told since elementary school that I would be an author someday, so, after I had written a half dozen poems, it was logical to send them out for publication.  They had received scathing critiques in workshops, but only by classmates.  The professor hadn’t said a word, I suspected, because he didn’t want to embarrass the other students in public by correcting their faulty judgments.
            I’m not sure where I saw the announcement, probably in The Writer or Writer’s Digest, which I had begun to read regularly (spending more time, in fact, reading about writing than actually doing any).  An “Important International Poetry Anthology” wanted submissions.  I sent my best poem.  It was four lines long, and it dealt with the aftermath of a party.  Cigarette butts.  Empty bottles.  Hangovers.  Ash, trash, and regret.  Real life, man.
            The acceptance came quickly along with the stipulation that contributors must buy a copy.  This seemed reasonable, even unnecessary since, of course, I wanted one.  My dorm-mate began introducing me as a “published poet” at the business school recruiting parties we were crashing.  I would shake my head and look away as he did this, trying to look modest, which was difficult since I was only twenty and already on my way.
            Finally the fat envelope came.  I opened the book and had an immediate, overwhelming, feeling.  Surprisingly, since this was my first publication, it was also a familiar one.  It’s that feeling you get at the arrival of the X-Ray specs or the life-size remote control Frankenstein ordered from a comic book, that alloy of disappointment, anger, and shame forged by the awareness you’ve been scammed. 
            Each of the anthology’s hundreds of pages had at least a dozen poems.  It was difficult to find mine crammed among the thousands.  I read some, and they were uniformly terrible.  Then I realized that if each “contributor” bought a copy, that’s all the publisher had to sell.
            Long after midnight, when the hall was deserted, I took the book to the garbage chute, tossed it in, and listened as it hammered its way down to the dumpster to be incinerated.
            This first publication was critical.  I stopped going to B school parties, afraid someone might remember “the poet.”  Consequently, a business career became even more unlikely.  I didn’t submit work again for several years, and then I chose the places that I knew.  Most importantly, I understood from the beginning of my career what it meant to be a “published author.”

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Ray Bradbury, A Thunderous Philosophy

           Ray Bradbury’s death this year coincided with the 50th anniversary of his masterful story “A Sound of Thunder.”  In it, a hunter goes back in time to kill a dinosaur, accidently leaves the path, crushes a butterfly, and changes history.
            Reading this when I was young, the story had the same impact as seeing the ending of the original Planet of the Apes (which had me jumping up and pointing at the TV.  "Oh my God, Oh my God, they've been . . .").  It opened my mind to previously inconceivable “what if” possibilities.  This world doesn’t have to be the way it is.  History might not be inevitable.  I knew instinctively these science works were philosophical works.  In fiction, the writers were presenting challenging, revelatory, concepts. 
            “A Sound of Thunder” plays with the idea of “the butterfly theory,” which is epitomized by the question “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”  Complex, large, systems can be altered by small changes. Examples of this seem to be everywhere.  In college my roommate, a Physics major, liked to quote an adage about gravity, “when you throw a stone, you move the stars.”  Historians recite the proverb about Richard III:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horsehoe nail.

            Numerous works of art explore the tremendous world-changing effects small actions can have.  For some, this inspires.  As we head into the next presidential election, I’m sure this will be one of the repeated arguments for going to the polls.  However, it also suggests you cannot know what the effects will be.  There is no easily discernible cause and effect.
            Ultimately, Bradbury's story seems philosophically aligned with the tale that Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character tells in Charlie Wilson’s WarThere's a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse... and everybody in the village says, "how wonderful. The boy got a horse" And the Zen master says, "we'll see." Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, "How terrible." And the Zen master says, "We'll see." Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight... except the boy can't cause his legs all messed up. and everybody in the village says, "How wonderful.” . . .
            Actions have consequences, but the consequences can’t be determined by the actions.  This was a fascinating idea to the boy I was; this is a terrifying idea to the man I’ve become.