Blas Falconer, Poet

Photo: Bethany Ann Kenney

Photo: Bethany Ann Kenney

Blas Falconer is the author of The Foundling Wheel (Four Way Books, 2012); A Question of Gravity and Light (The University of Arizona Press, 2007); and The Perfect Hour (Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press, 2006). He is also a co-editor for The Other [email protected]: Writing Against a Singular Identity (The University of Arizona Press, 2011) and Mentor & Muse:  Essays from Poets to Poets (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010).

He teaches at University of Southern California and in the low-residency MFA program at Murray State University.

Falconer’s awards include a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, a Tennessee Individual Artist Grant, the New Delta Review Eyster Prize for Poetry, and the Barthelme Fellowship.

Born and raised in Virginia, Falconer earned an MFA from the University of Maryland (1997) and a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston (2002). He currently lives in Los Angeles, California with his family.

I first met Blas Falconer during the June 2014 Antioch residency. I had not only attended his workshop, but also introduced him as the guest poet for an evening of readings. The night before this interview, Falconer was part of “Without Bridges,” a PEN Center USA poetry reading. I was fortunate to be in attendance.

Rochelle Newman: Do you have a writing ritual or structure?

Blas Falconer: I keep in touch with a few friends from grad school. We usually check in on Sunday to encourage each other. We give each other—give ourselves, really—a focus, a poetic element or device like compression or metaphor, tone, diction, or syntax. Then, we work on our own throughout the week using the focus as a lens to write something new. That keeps poetry in the back of my mind all the time, even when I’m picking my kids up or taking them to swim class or whatever it is I’m doing. Maybe I’m grocery shopping or even teaching, but I can go back to the page whenever I have time. My friends and I stay in contact throughout the week—asking, Hows it going? Are you having trouble? Then, we exchange our work that following Sunday, no matter what, and start thinking about the next week.

We do this for a few reasons. One, it feels great to be writing and just thinking about poetry when everything else in our lives is demanding our attention. Two, it keeps our skills honed while pushing us to try our hands at something new. And three—every once in a while, we get a poem worth keeping. What I realized recently is that because I’ve been dong this with my friends for a while, when I do get a chunk of time to write, there isn’t that painful beginning. You know, when you haven’t written in a while. The muscles haven’t atrophied. You’re right there.

RN: I really enjoyed attending your workshop, The Finished Poem, at Antioch this past June. In describing the premise, you quoted Brazilian poet Adelia Prado. She had been asked, as Im sure you have been many times, how she knew when her poems were finished. She responded (in Portuguese) when they are better than I am.You covered great territory in that workshopfrom knowing when youre finished to pushing yourself to the edge of your own limitations. When, for example, do you know you’re finished, and how do you give yourself that push?

When I can call home and not feel guilty, then I know that the poem is done.

BF: You know when your poem’s not finished. You know when you’ve taken an easy out. You just do. One of my professors once said, “Do you want to write one hundred good poems or one great poem?” I’ve never forgotten that. I’m not saying I’m going to write a great poem, but at least I want to aim for it, so I don’t want to stop short. And the other thing is this, when I’m writing, I’m not with my family. When I’m writing, everyone makes a sacrifice. When I go to a writer’s conference, for example, if I don’t really push myself and challenge myself, I’m not only letting myself down, but I’m letting my family down. I’m not using that time well. It would be better for me to stay at home and be with my kids—that would be time better spent. So, how do I know the poem is done? It’s done when I feel like whatever it is that I was desperate to say has been said, in the best way I am capable of saying it at that time. When I can call home and not feel guilty, then I know that the poem is done.

RN: You also spoke a great deal about “turns” or “voltas” in the workshop. How do you help your students to really leverage turns? 

BF: Sometimes students don’t think to turn, like I don’t think to turn sometimes. They hit a wall and think that they’re done. But if you just start poking a little bit and start asking questions, you realize that within the poem itself there are clues as to how you can push yourself: maybe there’s a reference to a narrative that you want draw on. Maybe there’s another narrative that can be brought in to juxtapose with the first. Maybe there’s a pattern that’s trying to emerge. If there is a pattern, then you can break the pattern. Maybe it’s metrical, or some sort of rhyme scheme, or even some sort of rhetorical device, so that’s a way my students can turn—it really depends on the poem itself. Once you start to look at it and see what you’ve begun with—the draft invites some play, some possibilities—you may want to counter the idea and undermine the argument you made in the first several lines. What I like to do is ask students to explore. Sometimes the poem is done, and there’s nothing left to do, but it’s always fruitful to consider how you might push the poem before you let it go.

RN: I believe you were once a gymnast, which makes me think of turns and dismounts. Do you think your training as an athlete, specifically a gymnast, plays any role in your poetry or your process?

BF:What an interesting idea. Actually, I have written about it, there’s a section in the prose poem sequence “Another Kind of Music”from The Foundling Wheel where I write about gymnastics explicitly. In the poem, I describe dismounting from the horizontal bar and being spotted by my coach, to convey what it was like to be in the closet and wanting to be loved, and being in love with someone who was straight and who didn’t know. It was about trust, trying to trust. So in the analogy, the coach—when he spots you, he stands below you—you fly up in the air, you do whatever trick you’re doing. Often times, especially when you’re learning a new move, there’s a blur and a disorientation. You’re out of control; you don’t know where you are. As you do it more and more, you can sense where you are in the air, you can spot the ground and land on your feet, but until then the coach is there to catch you, make sure you don’t get hurt. Sometimes he can’t prevent that. So in a way, that is also like writing, I suppose. You do kind of get lost and you’re trying to spot the ground. You’re trying to land. Sometimes you crash, sometimes you don’t, and sometimes it’s fine.

Training could also be a good description of revision, because when you’re learning something in gymnastics, you do it again and again and again, and you fail again and again and again, usually—until it feels right. Then you get it and once you get it, it’s like your body, muscle memory kicks in. The feeling you get when you do a move well, for example, is a little bit like the way it feels when you finish a poem, and it feels like everything is where it’s supposed to be.

Another reason it’s a good analogy is this: there are a lot of parts to an acrobatic move. If you want to complete it, you may have to kick, you need a certain amount of momentum, you need your body to take a particular shape, your arms might have to do something in order to turn or spin. Everything must be timed right. You’re thinking about distance and height, you’re thinking about when you release from the bar, there are all these components that make the move successful. So within a poem, that’s true as well. It’s not any individual device that matters, it’s all of them working together to create the whole experience.

RN:What drives you to the page?

BF: It’s a good question: why do we write these poems? What compels us to “speak?” I think it was Jorie Graham who said, “When I write a poem, I imagine I’m talking to someone who’s walking away.” That’s a really great way to think about urgency in a poem, about what you need to say. One of my professors once said, “Every poet needs to learn how to not write about himself or herself,” but he also said that every poem that he has ever written is somehow about his father. There are several subjects that I keep returning to—belonging, for example—subjects that I clearly feel the need to address, whether I write about them explicitly or not. But also the act of speech is important. I write because the act is empowering and self-affirming. I lived with a secret for much of my life, and keeping that secret made me feel shame and self-loathing, so to speak my truth seems to defy those who would deny me my small place in this world, it is to insist that I am here, as well.

I often return to Heather McHugh’s poem “What He Thought,” where an Italian gentleman defines poetry by telling the story of Giordano Bruno, who had been burned in the square for public heresy. His captors, fearing what he might say to the crowd, placed an iron mask on his face, so he couldn’t speak. “Poetry is what/ he thought but did not say,” the poem famously ends. In that moment, what was Bruno thinking, I wonder, what would he have said? I’m drawn to poetry because there is the potential to say what I can’t say in my life, not even here, in this interview, because of the mask, either self-imposed or imposed by social coercion or by language itself, language’s shortcomings. How lucky, I sometimes think, to have found poetry.

RN: Whats the first poem you remember hearing?

I didn’t know where I was. I was lost, but I was also kind of thrilled about it and I wanted to go back and try it again and again and again.

BF: What’s the first poem I remember hearing? That’s really interesting, because if you think of hearing…you know, with the word underlined…I loved children’s poetry when I was growing up. But the first poem I heard, that I really heard was as an undergrad in a contemporary poetry class. When I heard Sylvia Plath read out loud, I couldn’t even process the words. My ear kept going back to all the rhyme, the internal rhyme, and the class had moved on, but my head was still spinning and before I realized it the poem was over. It was like I was doing that gymnastic move and I couldn’t spot the ground. I didn’t know where I was. I was lost, but I was also kind of thrilled about it and I wanted to go back and try it again and again and again. So maybe that’s it, maybe my first poem was “Lady Lazarus”, or “Daddy” that I really heard.

RN: What about the first poem you ever read? And I guess read can have a few meanings tooread in a book or read aloud. 

BF: So if I had to say hearing, I would say Sylvia Plath, from that class. And reading, I would say Lucille Clifton because Quilting is the first book of poetry that I bought. And I was so thrilled to have it and to read it through. That was probably the first poet I read thoughtfully.

RN: Youve mentioned that the Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa can really move you. How are you inspired by other art formsmusic, painting, photography, sculpture, for example? I found a poem you wrote based on a photograph of zinnias and it made me curious about the role of these other influences.

BF: When I listen to Mercedes Sosa’s voice and when she’s singing about something profound, you just listen to it, it’s kind of like when you’re around someone who is in a very profound emotional state. You can’t help but feel it. When I was a young child and I would see someone cry—I mean grieve—even If I saw someone struggling to hide the grief, holding it back, I would burst into tears. I could not control myself. And I think that when you are in front of an artwork that is emotionally engaging, if you keep being present with it, eventually the boundary between you and the work starts to blur. You start to feel whatever it is…something. That work speaks to something I want to say.

The emotional register helps me to articulate something. So for example, with the poem that you’re referring to, it’s from the Harvey Hix ekphrastic project, Inquire. Harvey gave me Bruce Checefsky’s photograph of three zinnia elegans. The photographer used this technique that blurred the blossoms. My son had been, my older son had suffered from febrile seizures, and there was this moment in particular when I watched him have a seizure—he was about one and a half years old. It was hard to watch because you can’t do anything, there is nothing you can do. I remember my husband Joseph running to the bathroom to get something and I was like: Thats not going to help. It’s kind of like, go boil water. Im going to sit here with him. I spent a lot of time looking at this photograph and I didn’t know what I was going to write about, but finally I got this, the feeling I had when I was watching my son’s body shaking and it was like it was blurred, time blurred, and I thought it was like these white blossoms, they were on fire…they were like fever. So I was just looking at them and it was through the emotion, somehow they tapped into this experience I had and the emotions behind it, when I watched my son have a seizure.

In that poem I was able to bridge those two experiences—looking at the image and saying that was my son—how else do you describe that? I mean there are probably many ways, but that was the best way for me. I guess that’s what I—it’s kind of like a way to get underneath everything and behind the brain, or around the brain, and get to the more emotional center of whatever it is you’re trying to write.

RN: Do you believe that a love for poetry starts in the womb, or does it have to be introduced and reinforced?

BF: In my older son’s case, it seems to be the latter because he has expressed very little interest…but I am determined. At bedtime, after reading one or two of his favorite books, usually something to do with superheroes, I say, Now, we can either read these nursery rhymes, or you go to bed. He groans and complains before eventually caving. Sometimes, we read one or two before he’s ready to sleep, but other times, he keeps asking me to read the next and the next until we get through the whole book. What begins as an attempt to stay up really late sparks some interest, I think. He still prefers reading about Power Rangers, but he seems to be more open to poetry.

RN: Where do young people get connected to poetry today?

BF: You’ll have to ask them. I don’t know. Probably from many different places. From music, from slam, performance poetry…many performance poems go viral, they’re very powerful. From the classroom, from the Internet, people are posting them on Instagram. Also, there are a lot of organizations that do a great job of making available lots of great poems and helping people access them. Poetry Foundation has a really great website. PEN Center USA and Poets & Writers, which put together last night’s reading, and a lot of other organizations all over the country are working to create a presence in communities.

RN: Can you take us back to your childhoodHunters Wood Elementary School in Virginia and then to Puerto Ricoand share some perspectives on how your poetry has been influenced by your duality, or perhaps I should say plurality of identity?

BF: Plurality. My dad was of German and Scottish descent. My mom was Puerto Rican. I don’t know how much of this sense of duality is because my mom was Puerto Rican and we were in Northern Virginia, or because we would go to Puerto Rico and I was, then I was very, not Puerto Rican—

RN: Or Nuyorican.

BF: Yes, exactly. I wasn’t even Nuyorican. Then on top of that I was gay—within— almost always within a straight environment that created a big internal world, an internal life in which I was always considering how I was being perceived. Am I being straight enough? Have I just given myself away? So just having that at a very young age, you know, you have to develop a very strong, or developed a very strong imaginative world. For me, writing invites a similar turning inward—toward that private voice, which I became attuned to at an early age because of that plurality, I suppose.

RN: Your first collection, A Question of Gravity and Light,explored the challenges of moving between cultures and specifically underscored the cultural tensions inherent in being a gay man, particularly one with maternal ties to Puerto Rico. You have connected solitude and sensitivitywith your poetic drive. Are solitude and sensitivity still what drive you? Or, is your need for poetic expression driven by other characteristics at this stage of your life? 

BF: The subject matter is only one component, of course, in what drives the poem. I wrote the first book and I was thinking about these larger issues of identity, but the second book—

RN: The Foundling Wheel.

BF: Yes. I was just writing about what was happening in front of me, my son’s adoption, my father-in-law’s death, my husband’s absence. There was an immediate and constant drama or tension in my life that I was trying to capture. In both cases, the sense of solitude and sensitivity are there because, when I write, I want to be as quiet and alert as I can be, so I can hear the poem. That’s where the work comes from. Now, I’m writing new poems, some of which have little to do, or anything to do explicitly, with my personal life. Yet what I’m describing or witnessing is still my perspective—they’re still coming from that same place—that stillness, so I think they often still convey that sense of solitude and sensitivity.

RN: Youre one of the editors of Mentor and Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets, which I personally found very accessible and inspiring for writers, whether they are poets are not. In addition to that book, craft-focused or not, what should poets be reading? 

BF: I think they should read what excites them, and I think they should read what frustrates them and confuses them, and I think they should read what doesn’t sound like them, and what sounds like them. I want to read poetry that is very different from my own because it challenges me to think beyond my own aesthetics or themes. Often, I turn to poetry that’s very different from my own when the skills or techniques I’m most comfortable with aren’t enough for me to write the poem that I’m trying to write. Someone once told me to think of poetic devices and modes as keys on a piano. If you rely on only a few keys, you’ll have a very limited repertoire.

RN: And what about how should poets be reading? Is there a how?

BF: What I do in my workshops is I often have—we read a poem out loud—and I just want students to be sensitive to the way they are responding. Be open and alert to the way they are responding physically, emotionally, to the experience of the poem. I think that’s the most important thing. Intuitively they can often grasp the poem and they grasp what might be working or what might not be working. And they just sense that this is not quite right, or Im drawn in right here, but I feel pushed out over here. So I guess I want them to do that. I ask them to do that with poems that we read together and if they’re confused and frustrated, ask themselves, why? Why is something challenging? In the end, when composing their own new work, I want students to look to themselves, to trust their judgment, and I’ve found that this is an effective way to help develop that confidence and to help them start thinking about what they want to say and how they want to say it.

RN: You mentioned out loud. Is reading a poem out loud an important “how” for a poet?

BF: Absolutely! It’s necessary. Sometimes I just read my students’ poems back to them, and have them read them to me, and have somebody else read them. But also it’s when the poem comes alive for me. I love reading on the page too, because you can see more clearly how it comes together, how it’s working. But the music of the poem is as important as any other element, if not more important.

RN: As you know, I saw you read at a PEN USA event just last night. You are an excellent reader of your work, but not all poets are. Any tips for the reluctant reader?

BF: When I read now, I try to embody the speaker of the poem. I just want to—I don’t want to pretend like I am that person, I want to be that person. And I want to speak as though I am speaking these words for the first time and speaking them to someone in particular.

RN: At that same event, you made it a point to read some of your newest poems. But days old new, I think you said. I believe the idea of always reading something new was advice you once got. Can you talk more about that?

BF: It was Paul Guest who said it. I was reading from my first book a lot. I was reading the same poems over and over again, and so when he said that he tries to read something new every time, I thought, yeah, I should do that. It’s very good advice because it creates a little bit of fear—there’s immediacy, there’s a freshness there. The risk and the fear you feel about reading the new, the vulnerability comes into the voice, doesn’t it? And that’s what it is that I’m trying to get at—the vulnerability. I mean not every poet is aiming for that and that’s fine. I guess that’s what I’m aiming for.

Rochelle NewmanRochelle Newman is an MFA candidate at Antioch University of Los Angeles. She is an award-winning playwright. Her one-woman show, Hip Bones and Cool Whip, received critical acclaim in both the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly. Originally from New York’s Lower East Side, Rochelle currently resides in West Hollywood. A multicultural marketing specialist, she blogs for Advertising Age and is Chief Strategist for US Hispanic Marketing at Walton Isaacson in Culver City. She is working on a documentary entitled Popeye and the Poet, with actor Carlos Carrasco and poet Jimmy Santiago Baca.

Janet Fitch, Author

Janet FitchJanet Fitch is a long-time lover of history and Russia. During a student exchange in England, Fitch realized she wanted to be a writer. She published her first book, Kicks, in 1996. After her second book, White Oleander, made the Oprah Book Club, she was swept up in a whirlwind of critical acclaim. In 2002, “White Oleander” was made into a movie and just four years later Fitch published Paint It Black. She lives in Los Angeles and is presently working on a new book set in Russia.

Tai Farnsworth: Your book Paint It Black is in production to become a movie. Did you ever imagine that this short gothic story would grow into a book, and then into a film?

Janet Fitch: What I end up writing, it’s always a surprise. Some small kernel of inspiration, which magnetizes other concerns and moods and characters, a small stream joining to other small streams, growing wider and deeper. It’s interesting, that this book began with a favorite film, Bergman’s Persona. Then I took that inspiration and wrote a short story, which then, following a strange twisted pathway, became a literary novel. And now—based on a reader’s enthusiasm for the book—it’s going to become a film—a very different film from the original inspiration.

Paint It BlackTF: White Oleander was so brilliantly cast. You probably don’t get any input, but do you have any thoughts on who you’d like to see as Josie or Meredith in Paint It Black?

JF: I do, but I can’t go too far into this because there will be a Josie, and a Meredith, and I won’t have chosen them. I always saw a Meredith as kind of a combination of Marisa Berenson and Anouk Aimee…actresses from the sixties and seventies, so no way could they play Meredith now in any case. And Josie was based on a friend of mine, as she was at 19, so I’m looking forward to seeing a 19-year-old—who would have been all of 7 or 8 when I started writing the book. But I’m hoping for someone equal parts fragile and tough, elegant and punk.

TF: What does it feel like to have your books turned into movies? Are you worried about not liking the result? Does it feel exciting or nerve-wracking, or both, to have your work reach a whole new set of people?

It can’t ever hurt a book—if it’s a good movie, it will bring people to the book, if it’s a bad movie, people will say, “Oh the book was better.”

JF: It’s a great pleasure to have books turned into movies. A film allows the book to reach an entirely new set of readers. It can’t ever hurt a book—if it’s a good movie, it will bring people to the book, if it’s a bad movie, people will say, “Oh the book was better.” Either way, more people find the book. You hope it will be a good movie of course, but you have to just let the filmmakers make their film. You have to know it’s not a miniseries, it’s not going to be a word for word translation. Someone is making a work of art inspired by my work of art. That’s flattering as hell.

That said, I think it’s harder on readers who love a book—and hope to see that book on the screen. When filmmakers have departed significantly from the book, especially aspects of the book they particularly liked, it’s always disturbing. But to take a 450-page book and turn it into a 2-hour movie, significant portions have to be left behind. Filmmakers have to take what they feel to be the most significant part of the book, the mood, the central drama, and let the rest fall away.

And if I end up not liking the result, well, I didn’t have to make the movie! It’s a very difficult process and something I would not want to have to do myself. I wrote the book. I’ll write another book. It’s just flattering as hell.

TF: Your next book is also likely to appeal to an entirely new group of readers. Russia has always played a big part in your life. Is it comforting to find yourself back working on something so directly related to your first love?

JF: I don’t think comforting describes the sense of being engulfed by an immense historical novel. It’s more like being swallowed by a whale. Like Ahab, I have my own obsessions. Russia is my Moby Dick, I hope it doesn’t kill me. Then again, I’m not trying to kill it—I’m trying to capture it alive.

Still, it is incredibly satisfying to explore a time and a circumstance in Russian history I always wanted to examine. Everybody in the West writes about the Stalin era and World War II. But the Revolution…even the Russians didn’t know that much about it because the history had been rewritten so frequently…and now there is access but politics continues, people have their own agendas. And revolutions have a peculiar logic of their own—what they start out as and where they end up, that is of keen interest to me. I’m very interested in the psychological and moral process by which people believe in things, believe in ideas—what do they do when the idea they have fought so hard for doesn’t match up with the unfolding reality? Do they admit it? Do they continue to defend the idea, which is becoming a lie?

I love spending this much unbroken time in this fascinating time and place, these terrific characters, completely non-American. There’s a challenge, trying to inhabit a Russian sensibility through the progress of a big novel. But my first idea of what a novel should be was the Russian novel—Dostoyevsky in particular. So my love of Russian literature preceded my interest in Russian history. Without the Russian novel, I don’t know if I would have undertaken anything this ambitious. Sometimes I see what I’m doing and I just freak out. But I keep telling myself, an ant can move a mountain, one grain at a time.

TF: Are you worried that people who are attached to Los Angeles as the setting and one of the main characters of your books will be disappointed you’re moving away from that?

JF: That remains to be seen. I think it would depend if it was Los Angeles per se people are attracted to in my work, or my sense of place generally, and how that is always intrinsic to the story. If it’s the latter, I’m on safe ground—the Russian novel is set in revolutionary Petrograd [St. Petersburg during the ten-year period between WWI and the death of Lenin in 1924]—and I’m absolutely obsessed with that city. I was an exchange student there during the Soviet era, and have gone back twice for research….I hope if I do it justice, that people will recognize my hand.

TF: When Los Angeles is the focus do you do a lot of your writing in the diners, restaurants, bars, or popular sites that your characters frequent? Do you ever drive around Los Angeles looking for inspiration?

JF: First question no, second question yes. I don’t need to write in the locations I use—I know them. Like, do you need to do research about your grandmother’s apartment? Sometimes you are creating something that isn’t even there anymore.

Second question—I see things that inspire me every day. Driving around, walking around is even better. Driving is just an instant. Walking, you can stop and consider. Sitting and hanging out and watching is the best of all.

TF: Do you ever regret moving away from history? Do you think being a historian would have been an easier career path? Would it have mattered?

JF: Writing historical fiction is the best of both worlds, I can do the research and ask the questions, but I can do what I love best, writing fiction—inhabiting and bringing historical phenomena to life through the point of view of a single human consciousness. I never really moved away from my love of history, only from my pursuit of a career as an historian.

TF: How many hours a day do you write? What does that writing process look like? Are there outlines and pre-writing or mostly just rough drafts? Do you have to be alone? Do you listen to the music that’s so woven into your stories?

No outlines. I know, scary. I usually start with a character and a situation that’s already wound up, like a little spring toy, you wind it up and you let it go.

JF: I usually write about four hours a day, more if I’m on a roll. I do rough drafts, rough rough drafts, and rewrite and rewrite as I go along. I also write short shorts on my blog, www., for the pleasure of finishing something! I might write from prompts or scents or objects, just to tune up, or even use a photograph related to my work and write my way into it. If I’m completely flummoxed, I might go somewhere and write, throw headphones on and listen to something droning, like Bauhaus, or Russian Circles, or London After Midnight…

I have used music to keep me in a mood—when I was writing Paint It Black, I had a tape called The Saddest Songs in the World I used to put on when I was feeling too cheerful to write it. I was in a very dark place when I started the book, but it takes me four or five years to write a novel, and by the time I was finishing it I was in a very different place. The Russian composer I listen mostly to is Prokofiev, it gives me the right feeling.

But mostly, it’s silence, so I can hear the music of my own prose. I often read poetry before I write, so that music is in my ears—Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot (especially the Four Quartets), Joseph Brodsky, sometimes Allen Ginsberg. Ear-poets.

No outlines. I know, scary. I usually start with a character and a situation that’s already wound up, like a little spring toy, you wind it up and you let it go. It sometimes takes me up a blind alley, and I have to back out and find the story again, jump ahead or switch point of view for a little to find myself again. But I like a stable unified point of view. In each book, I have tried writing from more than one person’s point of view and ended up discarding the various voices for the one strong central character—much like pruning side blossoms to encourage one big bloom.

But for me, place is everything. I have to know WHERE.  If I know WHERE, everything else comes. Crazy, yeah? Maps have been hugely important to the writing of this Russian novel.

TF: What would you say to budding authors who are worried about working in a field that is so rife with rejection and subjective reviews? How do you keep the motivation going? Do you ever get to a place where you can think, “Who cares what people say? I’m Janet Fitch!”

JF: Hahahahahaha. Janet Fitch, what’s that? A writer facing doubt and terror every day, who also has problems and has to pay the rent and so on. What I’d tell those budding writers is—don’t worry about the competition, just make what you’re doing as excellent as it possibly can be. Keep learning, find people you trust and listen to their critique. Read the best, read like a writer—which is like being a magician, don’t just sit out front in the audience gaping like an idiot, watch and figure out how the tricks are done. Pull people’s sentences apart and see how they’re constructed. Learn the craft, aspire to greatness. Motivation—a lot of this is what Paint It Black is about—how all artists have to live on a sliding scale between permission and perfection. There is no set point. Sometimes we cut ourselves too much slack and have to hold our feet to the fire. Read something insanely beautiful and become reinspired. At other times, the greatness of others paralyzes us, and then we need to cut ourselves more slack, give ourselves permission just to make a sound. Punk rock.

Yes, there are moments when you think, “Dang I’m good!” But I mean, these are MOMENTS.  My writing teacher Kate Braverman used to say, “There’s no such thing as a permanent state of grace.” You come down from that mountain pretty fast. And then you’re just working again. You never know if it’s any good, really, until the book is in the hands of its readers. The worst moment is when you get the galleys back—the first time you see it set in type, the way it’s going to look on the page—and GOD it looks terrible.  But I’ve been through it twice now, and I know, that’s just the way it is.

Rejections—it’s about making it as good as you can, using every resource available, refining your skills as brightly as firing a sword, and then braving the numbers game. Reviews—terrifying. I usually make someone else read them first. I’m very thin skinned; I take everything personally. I just keep reminding myself, not everybody likes chocolate. Not everybody wants a dirty martini. Who are you writing for? Do you want to be a bag of Doritos, or do you want to be an interesting highly flavored appetizer, or do you want to be a four-course meal? Everyone has to answer these questions for themselves.

Tai FarnsworthTai Farnsworth is an LA based writer in the midst of an MFA program and a snuggle battle with her cat. She lives with her upsettingly talented partner and many mason jars.

Dana Gioia, Poet

Dana Gioia with Frogs, Rats, and Bats from his new opera, The Three Feathers

Dana Gioia with Frogs, Rats, and Bats from his new opera, The Three Feathers

I don’t know how long I’ve been staring at this blank page, fingers poised over the laptop’s keyboard. But it feels like a long time. A very long time. And my thoughts are all over the map; I see them as an army of impossibly tiny steer running in every direction and there’s me without a horse to give chase, standing dumbstruck, as they brazenly scatter across my boot-tips, safe in the knowledge that the lone impossibly tiny lasso dangling from my shaking hand poses no threat to them whatsoever.

Oh, look, another bill just landed in my email. Thanksgiving is upon us, Christmas is right around the corner and why is it these holidays now bring me more anxiety than pleasure? And then there’s the perfectly timed article over at The New York Times’ website in which two established authors are attempting to answer the question, “How Has the Social Role of Poetry Changed Since Shelley?” I know it’s coincidental but that doesn’t stop my irrational racing mind from asking, “Am I being mocked?”

And then, finally, a more pertinent question—ferried upon the impossibly tiny shoulders of a wayward steer—breaks through the pack: Does this kind of thing ever happen to poet Dana Gioia? He’s the former chairman (2003-2009) of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and in 2011 was named Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California where he teaches in the fall. (Other Judge Widney Professors at USC include world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and now-retired General David Petraeus, and conductor, pianist, and composer Michael Tilson Thomas.)

During one of our first email exchanges in which we’re attempting to set up a time to talk on the phone, Gioia remarks, “Next week is pure madness, but I should be okay by the weekend.” But then the following day brings this missive: “And today I got word that I have a German professor staying with me and another one who wants me to come to his lecture, and my older son just sent me the manuscript of his latest magnum opus which needs immediate care, and tomorrow night I must be the interlocutor—I’m not making this up—for a historian who has written a history of double entry accounting (a pretty interesting book, by the way). I also have a piece due for the program of an opera for which I’ve written the libretto, lyrics for a jazz song cycle, and half a dozen letters of recommendation, all urgent. This is what they call a contemplative life.”

I want to believe that Gioia sometimes finds himself staring numbly at a blank computer screen and, if not feeling mocked by it, at least wondering, Why me? Why today when I really need to get this done? But the further I dig into his literary history and the more we communicate via email and, later by phone, well, I just don’t see how it’s possible—or even an option for that matter.

He has published four full-length poetry collections (one of which, Interrogations at Noon, was the 2002 American Book Award winner) and eight chapbooks. Gioia is also an acclaimed critic and essayist whose 1991 compilation, Can Poetry Matter?, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. Then there are the anthologies, of which Twentieth-Century American Poetry and Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing are just a couple. His poems, translations (Latin, Italian, and German), essays and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New York Times Book Review, among many others. Not to mention three libretti: Nosferatu (with composer Alva Henderson), Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast (with composer Paul Salerni), and The Three Feathers (with composer Lori Laitman). The latter, a children’s opera based upon a fairy tale of the same name by the Brothers Grimm, had its world premiere at the Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech back in October.

And I haven’t even mentioned two Word documents sent to me by Dana as reference—one titled “Musical Settings of Poems” encompasses eleven pages of his work and collaborations, the other a “List of Books” (a few of which I’ve already noted) clocks in at a mere three pages and is by no means comprehensive.

He’d warned me in advance that he was “a talker” and when we finally spoke on the phone some weeks later I understood why. We were about twenty-five minutes in when I realized I hadn’t yet asked Gioia a single question from the list of about fifteen or so on the notebook in front of me. But the thing was, I didn’t care. I’d intuited after just a few minutes that Dana was someone who couldn’t help but talk passionately, regardless of the subject at hand. Combine that passion with his unassuming, jovial demeanor, and sonorous voice and you soon realize the best course of action is to simply sit back and listen.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m very working class Italian, and the main topic of conversation of adults when I grew up was misery and deprivation. You know, the theme song could have been Noel Coward’s “There Are Bad Times Just Around The Corner.” When his father retired from work due to health reasons he had no pension to fall back on but Dana was glad to help out—just as he was glad to help put both his brother and sister through college. “I never let myself think of quitting. I might go to another job but I will not quit working. It was just, like, a given…and I did it because once you start allowing yourself to hate your job then when are you going to stop? (He laughs.) Especially for a poet. I mean, there’s always other stuff you want to do. So I just wouldn’t let myself go there. And it was probably a pretty good spiritual discipline.”

That discipline saw him through fifteen years at General Foods and the publication of his essay “Can Poetry Matter?” in The Atlantic. The essay garnered attention worldwide, and ruffled more than a few feathers within established poetry circles. But it was also the impetus for Dana to decide to try and make a living as a writer. “So I asked my wife how much was the smallest amount of money we could get by on, and she gave me a number which, I have to say, in retrospect, was pure fantasy.” (He laughs.) They had two kids at the time. Still, Gioia says that there were only two really bad years when he was cutting his financial teeth as a full-time writer (one of which, after deductions were taken for his children, he had no taxable income). “There are times that I felt bad about quitting [General Foods] for my family’s sake but I never felt bad about quitting for my sake… If you put yourself in a new world and allow yourself to be open to possibility, things happen.” 

American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.
—“Can Poetry Matter?” (The Atlantic, May 1991)

During our conversation, Dana references a huge survey of adult readers that the NEA regularly conducts. And while he didn’t have an exact figure on hand, he noted that the number of adults reading poetry continues its downward spiral.

“We’ve created a profession of poetry [for] which we have employment, we have grants, we have awards, we have civic positions…but an ironic counterpoint is that the number of people in our society reading poetry has gone down. If you look at “Can Poetry Matter?” the basic insight is really very simple: generally, at any moment of culture there are just simple things to be said that nobody wants to say. It must be hundreds of millions of dollars a year being spent on poetry (professors, scholars, writers, etc.). We have a culture where almost everybody agrees it’s beside the point. And I just say, well, let’s explore that paradox.

“Maybe one of the reasons that poetry is declining [is] because of the very way that we teach it, we profess it, and we institutionalize it. And I believe that. I believe the professors, the school systems and even the poets, you know, lost touch with why people need poetry—you know, what it does, why they like it.”

In case you’re wondering, Gioia and I did finally get to those questions in my notebook. And, as it turns out, he has a workaround for that blank, mocking page: take a pair of pruning shears to it.

Michael Passafiume: How would you describe the state of poetry today in relation to print versus electronic publishing?

Dana Gioia: The state of poetry in print and electronic media is oddly similar. A huge amount of poetry constantly appears in both media, but the audience is small and increasingly fragmented. The internet makes poetry more easily accessible, but it hasn’t grown the readership. I love the convenience of the internet. If I become interested in a poet, I can usually find something instantly on the web. That’s nice, but in such cases the poet gets neither sales nor royalties. That’s not so nice.

MP: In “Can Poetry Matter?” you called poetry “a modestly upwardly mobile, middle-class profession—not as lucrative as waste management or dermatology but several big steps above the squalor of bohemia.” That was written in 1991. Has your view on the profession of poetry since altered?

If I become interested in a poet, I can usually find something instantly on the web. That’s nice, but in such cases the poet gets neither sales nor royalties. That’s not so nice.

DG: I was, of course, talking about the academic profession of creative writing. Over the past twenty years things have changed but not for the better. Like many other middle-class professions, the university creative writing trade has suffered significant damage. Nowadays there are virtually no new full-time jobs. There is also a generational split between the older tenured faculty, who are comparatively well-paid, and younger people, who lack full-time employment, job security, and benefits.

The situation for writers is actually worse than for most other fields. English departments need lots of graduate students to teach freshman composition courses, so for the past three decades they have deliberately admitted far more students than can ever be placed in permanent jobs. These young writers and scholars are openly exploited with poor pay and little likelihood of career advancement. It is a shameful situation. Academia has created a lost generation.

MP: In the title essay of your book Disappearing Ink, you said: Finally, there has been a decline in the quality and seriousness of poetry reviewing itself… Consequently, the reader seriously interested in following contemporary poetry finds that criticism now comes mainly in four varieties: invisible, incomprehensible, inaccessible, and insincere.

And in “Can Poetry Matter?” you again turned your sights on the topic of poetry reviewing: Several dozen journals now exist that print only verse. They don’t publish literary reviews, just page after page of freshly minted poems. The heart sinks to see so many poems crammed so tightly together, like downcast immigrants in steerage.

Today, unless it’s a collection by a well-known, well-regarded poet (“well” being relative), you might find coverage about a new book of poetry in The New York Review of Books or The Cortland Review, but coverage will likely be scarce in publications such as The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times.

Do reviews matter to anyone beyond the narrow scope of literary scholars and creative writers?

DG: Literature does not exist in a cultural vacuum. Criticism creates the conversation about literature that informs and enlarges the audience. When criticism is healthy, literature becomes more relevant and vital. Reviews give us the news of literature. These reviews matter greatly when they are intelligent, well-written, and honest.

When I finish a piece by a critic like Clive James or Adam Kirsch, I not only feel more alert and informed.; their writing whets my appetite for poetry.

Reading a first-rate critic, we enjoy the privilege of following a fellow reader’s mind and emotions as he or she engages in a literary work. Their efforts amplify and refine our ability to read the work. Unfortunately, so many reviews nowadays feel dull and untrustworthy—full of bland approbation and generic blather. Those reviews don’t matter because they don’t offer much that’s useful to the reader.

And, at least in my case, they dull my appetite for the art.

MP: You told me that A poem should be personal but it shouldn’t be autobiographical. A poem is about us…a common space both of us can occupy. You should feel as much ownership of it as I do.

I’m a poet whose work is highly autobiographical and whose style often pitches a tent in the confessional camp. Even so, I strive to engage a reader on multiple levels: I want them to learn about me but I also want them to learn something about themselves, to experience that Zen-like moment of “Hey, I’ve been where this guy’s been before; I’ve had those same feelings!”

What’s your yardstick for transforming “this is about me” to “this is about us?”

Prose can gain by the slow accumulation of detail, but poetry usually loses its energy and edge. A poem should evoke memory and emotion, not just catalogue them.

DG: There are two ways of answering this question—first from the reader’s perspective, then from the author’s.

As a reader of poetry, I worry that contemporary poetry has become too mired in needless private details. I often come across poems that would be twice as good if they were half the length. It’s not merely a matter of lost intensity. It’s about leaving some room in the poem for the reader to bring his or her own life. Prose can gain by the slow accumulation of detail, but poetry usually loses its energy and edge. A poem should evoke memory and emotion, not just catalogue them.

As a writer, I try to make my poems personal but not exhaustively autobiographical.

What I leave out can be as important as what I include. I want to invite the reader to bring his or her own life into the poem. In fact, I’ve come to believe that this need for the reader to “complete” the poem is part of the particular frisson of poetry. That is why poetry is a bit harder to read than prose. We need to do part of the imaginative work, and that effort brings us deeper into the text. For that reason, I try to cut out any detail that doesn’t seem necessary, and then I cut some more.

MP: In a lecture you gave to Antioch students last year on “The Poetic Line,” you claimed that the line is the key factor that separates poetry from other forms of literature. You also said that “in a poem, the microcosm is the macrocosm.”

DG: The most obvious difference between prose and verse is lineation. In art, obvious elements are always important—although that is often what experts ignore. Poetic technique consists mostly of exploiting the expressive possibilities of lineation as a formal principle to communicate and intensify meaning. Formal verse does it in auditory ways; free verse in syntactic or visual ways. The line is like the frame on a painting. It shows us where to pay attention. I spent an hour examining, refining, and explaining these points. So my summary is really just a few headlines.

Now on to your second question. One of the interesting things about poetry is that one can take a line or two—say from Yeats or Eliot or Dickinson—and it has the weird quality of recapitulating the power of the entire poem. “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” “The Soul selects her own Society—/Then—shuts the Door.” “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

A few words have the ability to evoke the larger structure of meaning and music. That is why people quote poetry in a way that they don’t quote fiction or drama. This social practice recognizes that a special power of poetry is its quotability. Offer a few lines from a great poem, and you already create a heightened state of attention in the audience.

MP: Taking into account today’s reading audience, what is the value of rhyme and rhyme schemes to creative writing students?

DG: Rhyme is a powerful and perennially popular technique. Over the past thirty years it has become even more popular with the rise of hip hop. Rhyme may also be one of the obvious ways in which to expand the audience for poetry since it appeals to the ordinary reader. Any aspiring poet should learn how to write in rhyme. Even if they don’t find the technique useful for their later work, it improves their eye and ear.

There is also something that I’ve seen again and again among young writers. If you make writing students learn a dozen different verse-forms—not just rhyme and meter but even different types of free verse—they are astonished to discover that they have a particular talent for some technique they’ve never tried before. The forms allow them to discover things about their own imagination. At the start no writer really knows what he or she does best. By learning the craft of writing they learn about themselves.

MP: I’ve seen you give readings and read your work. Rhyming seems to come natural to you. Is that a fair assumption? What about it do you enjoy? How do you avoid the dreaded “chime effect?”

DG: I have complicated feelings about rhyme. Over the years I’ve noticed that about a third of my poems rhyme—exactly the same proportion that are in free verse. I find it an intoxicating, mysterious, and maddening technique. Used well, rhyme offers pleasure and musicality to a poem in ways that most people can immediately apprehend. The trick is figuring out when a poem wants to be rhymed. As a new poem starts to emerge in one’s imagination, what shape does it want to take?

Rhyme moves a poem from conversational speech towards song. That is not always the right direction.

For me, rhymes either come at once or they take forever. I’m delighted that you find my rhymes so natural. It takes hard work to make them seem effortless.

When I hear people talk about “imposing” a form or rhyme on a poem, it seems to me that they have the process backwards. You can’t impose a rhyme on a line without making it sound false or awkward. You have to lure the rhyme out of the words. That usually means revising the whole line, not just the final words. Richard Wilbur once told me that a poet rhymes lines not words. That observation struck me as right.

MP: Suppose that you have a day or two, unfettered from social or work obligations, and you want to get some writing done. What is your process?

DG: My process is terrible. I usually have trouble getting started. I waste hours doing everything except the task at hand. I do the dishes. I go outside and prune trees. I answer letters. I drink lots of coffee. Finally, I get so angry at myself that I become depressed. I boil in self-contempt. About half an hour later, I start writing. I’m sure if I had an analyst, he or she would have a great deal to say about my need for psychic disturbance.

I should add that every now and then a poem just comes in the window and lands on the page. In those cases, it seems that I have been writing it for years in the back of my mind. On those days the dishes sit in the sink.

MP: Do you ever tire of poetry—either reading or writing it?

DG: I honestly love reading poetry—good poetry. What happens, however, is that after one gets bombarded by bad poetry, it just kills the appetite. I remember Elizabeth Bishop telling me that after reading some literary journals, she didn’t want to look at another poem for months. In order to read poetry well, you need to be open and vulnerable. That’s why bad poetry is so excruciating.

Writing poetry is an involuntary process. A poem either comes or it doesn’t. I can’t write a good poem as an act of will. I am at the mercy of the Muse. Sometimes she stays away for months, even years. Then she barges in and starts dictating. I never tire of seeing her. I wish she would stop by more often.

MP: What authors have influenced you and your writing?

DG: Some writers influence your ideas. Other influence your style. A few provide useful models for your life (or cautionary examples of what not to do). The modern poets who have served as models for me have been W. H. Auden, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Rainer Maria Rilke—each in different ways. They helped me clarify what it means to be a poet in the modern world. But I’ve learned a lot from prose writers, too. Jorge Luis Borges, Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, and John Cheever taught me a great deal about writing poetry.

MP: Speaking of reading, what occupies space these days on your nightstand or iPad?

DG: Reading is one of the great and constant pleasures of my life. I can’t recall a time in my life that I didn’t read for pleasure. I still read a great deal of fiction—at least one novel or book of short stories a week. The trouble is that I often feel I’ve read most of the books I’m likely to love. So I reread a great deal. This past year I’ve reread four novels by Friedrich Durrenmatt as well as much of Chekhov. Last night I finished Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, a short novel that consists entirely of letters of recommendation by a teacher of creative writing. It was very witty and at times quite touching. The best new novel I’ve read lately is Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. It is in some ways a conventional Bildungsroman about a young poet trying to find himself on a fellowship to Spain, but Lerner’s prose has such remarkable richness and bite. He portrays the delusions of a young male artist with merciless accuracy. Lerner is also a poet. His verse is good, but fiction is his true métier.

For poetry, the best new book I’ve read is J. Allyn Rosser’s Mimi’s Trapeze. I’m still not crazy about the title, but the poems both moved and fascinated me. Rosser’s poetry is smart and clever, but her work seethes with such quiet emotion that the effect is deeply emotional. I don’t understand why Rosser isn’t on everyone’s list of the best younger poets.

MP: If time travel becomes a reality tomorrow, where will you go?

DG: I would go back to December, 1987 and try to prevent the death of my first son.

MP: Do you write for an audience or only for yourself?

DG: I suppose a poet might write only for himself, but that situation doesn’t appeal to me. A poem without readers seems a diminished thing. I have always written for an audience—but not the small, cantankerous audience that exists for contemporary poetry. I write for the sort of person who reads novels, listens to jazz, watches old movies. These people don’t pay much attention to poetry. But it’s my experience that they like good poems when they encounter them. It’s not a bad thing for poetry to compete with fiction or film. I’ve always assumed that I would have to create my readership as I went along.

MP: What advice would you give a fledgling writer pertaining to the craft of poetry?

DG: Love the art. Be passionate. Immerse yourself in it for hours every day—reading, writing, memorizing, reciting. Learn poems by heart. Bring them into the center of your being. Take pleasure in mastering technique. Study great poems and not so great poems, so that you can tell the difference. If you don’t love poetry so much that all this labor seems like fun, then try something else. Fame and fortune are unlikely outcomes for the poet. The main reward is doing work you love.

Michael PassafiumeMichael Passafiume is co-poetry editor of Lunch Ticket. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The AlembicThe Blue Hour MagazineDirty ChaiDrunk MonkeysKNOCK MagazineMinetta Review, and The Subterranean Quarterly, among others. His chapbook, I Know Why the Caged Bird Screams, was a quarterfinalist for the Mary Ballard Poetry Prize for 2015 from Casey Shay Press. He lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.

Jill Marr, Literary Agent

Jill Marr

Photo: Roz Foster

Jill Marr is an agent at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. She graduated from San Diego State University with a BA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing and a minor in History. She has a strong Internet and media background and nearly 15 years of publishing experience. After writing ad copy and features for published books for years, she knows how to find the “hook” and sell it. Jill is interested in commercial fiction, with an emphasis on mysteries, thrillers, romantic suspense and horror, women’s commercial fiction, and historical fiction.

David Bumpus interviewed her via email.

David Bumpus: What is the relationship between author and agent like today? What sort of relationship should authors realistically expect when they seek an agent?

Jill Marr: These days an agent is more of a jack of all trades than ever before. Most of us are heavy with the editorial process, as projects need to be as perfect as possible when we take them to market. Then even after we place the project with a publisher, we are there—pushing for the very best jacket art and every little thing. Then at pub we help to promote the author and the book and are constantly thinking about the author’s career, not just the one book.

DB: What is the relationship between agent and publisher like in today’s marketplace? Has there been a shift in the way that book deals are struck—similar to the way that, say, record companies now tend to produce one-hit wonders instead of career musicians?

JM: This is really one of the aspects in the industry that hasn’t changed much, though many of the players have. We are all out to find great art, books that people think and want to read. We want to discover writers and mold careers.

DB: As an agent specifically looking for commercial fiction, what do you look for in a manuscript? What makes or breaks a manuscript for you?

Usually I’ll give the writer about 10-15 pages to get me hooked. If the voice speaks to me, if the pacing really moves and if the characters are strong and interesting, I’ll keep reading and hope for the best.

JM: I’m always drawn to a great concept and a unique voice. I have a difficult time reading manuscripts that clearly need editorial help and I always caution writers to be sure that agents are not the very first people who read their work. I’ll first look to make sure that the overall concept is new and fresh and if it’s something that excites me, I’ll take a look. Usually I’ll give the writer about 10-15 pages to get me hooked. If the voice speaks to me, if the pacing really moves and if the characters are strong and interesting, I’ll keep reading and hope for the best.

DB: Do you feel cinema has changed the way we write books? Do people simply not have the patience for books anymore? What aspects of writing do you think cinema has influenced (when reviewing manuscripts that people have sent you, do you see trends such as they are all action and dialogue, no thought given to detail or inner sensation, gratuitous sensationalism, etc.), and what do you think the effects are? And how does all of this factor into what you, as an agent, want to solicit?

JM: I don’t think that film has changed literature much at all. If anything, some of the best movies are book-to-film projects, so the film world is coming knocking, looking for content. Because of our close proximity to Hollywood, The Dijkstra Agency does a lot of book-to-film deals and often when I’m reading a manuscript that I think I’ll pick up I’ll be thinking about film agents at the same time.

With regard to trends, most of the derivative projects I get are from writers who really don’t know the industry or the market to which they are hoping to sell. What we are seeing published today will be yesterday’s news in 18-24 months when the books I am selling to publishers now are released.

DB: What are your thoughts on the role of entertainment in books? As an agent specifically geared towards commercial fiction, how big of a role does entertainment play when seeking to get a book published? Is there room in today’s publishing landscape for a ruminating, existential, plotless tome, or is commercial viability king? And are these things mutually exclusive? 

JM: In publishing there is room for everything. But will it sell to a wide variety of the reading public? That’s another question. Most people pick up a book and hope to be entertained, so it’s just a matter of how they want to be entertained. I like it when a book makes me think and I like when one stays with me long after I put it down. But I personally don’t like it when a message is forced down the reader’s throat. And I like a narrative that really moves (and that’s with any genre). Plus, in general, the gigantic tomes, no matter how wonderful, are difficult to translate, so the foreign sales and outreach will be limited.

DB: There is an idea that place affects writing. There is also an idea that NYC writers are different from LA writers, who are different from Portland writers, who are different from Southern writers, and so on. Are we becoming divided? And are these biases prevalent in the industry—does place affect who is interested in publishing you?

I love a book that is so well written that the setting almost becomes a character in itself.

JM: I think if anything, we are becoming less divided. I love a book that is so well written that the setting almost becomes a character in itself. One of my authors is writing a thriller that is set in Peoria, IL. The author and his family moved there a couple of years back for his wife’s job, but he does not like the city. In the novel the city took on a life of its own. When he asked me if he should change the setting I said, absolutely not! It was one of the strongest aspects of his first draft. It’s great to read a novel that is set somewhere I’ve never been.

DB: Do you see any biases in publishing–between gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.? How do you think we can overcome or otherwise dismantle those?

JM: I don’t, really—sorry, not the most entertaining answer but the literary world is likely the most open and inviting.

DB: There seem to be two major career trajectories writers are encouraged towards right now: to teach, or to try to make it as a commercial writer, and this seems largely tied to where the writer is coming from (specifically if the writer has an MFA, where MFAs are often encouraged to go into teaching). What are your thoughts on the NYC publishing route versus the push to become-an-MFA-to-teach-in-order-to-create-more-MFAs-who-will-do-the-same situation? What counsel would you provide to an MFA graduate signing on with you who is looking to make writing a viable career path?

JM: A big part of being an agent is managing expectations. Even after a nice sale to a publishing house, I always tell my authors not to quit their day jobs. So I’d advise an MFA graduate to look for work that is related to the field, whether it’s teaching, writing ad copy, website copy, anything. And then continue to write that book. That way they continue to develop their skills (and let’s face it—it’s nice to get paid to write) while working toward the ultimate dream of getting published.

DB: Due to how easy it has become in recent years to create and run a website, many major literary journals are going online, and numerous other journals are cropping up (and disappearing) left and right. How do literary journals, online or in print, feed into this new generation of writers? And how do you think they’re affecting the landscape for short story writers, specifically? If you’re published by a number of online literary journals, is that enough?

JM: It’s all about getting your name out there. When looking over the bios of prospective writers, agents love to see that they have been published in literary journals, magazines, and even online. That said, we also really like to see that the author is savvy about social media and getting their name out there in any way. Bloggers who have a good following are always interesting to us as well. There are so many ways for writers to get exposure these days, that those who are not getting out there really don’t have any excuse.

DB: What are your thoughts on going indie versus seeking publication with the Big Five? There is a growing notion that the dedicated, passionate members of the literary community are moving towards the indie publishing houses because that’s where all the other people who are passionate about the community are. Do you feel these tensions as an agent when deciding along which route to push a book?

JM: I recently heard that when an author goes the traditional publishing route, approximately 70 people will be involved with that book at some point in the process. So if an author can negotiate a contract, is a talented editor or has access/funds to one, can design quality jacket art, get the distribution to bookstores and clubs like Costco, obtain reviews, and national coverage for their book, then I’d say feel free to consider the indie route.

The unfortunate part of the indie movement is that there is a lot of garbage out there that is being self published. There are editors for a reason. So the waters have kind of been muddied in that regard. But there are some great self-published books as well. The beauty of the way that the publishing industry is moving is that there are more and more options for agents and authors. If an agent helps one of their authors go the indie route, we want to make sure that it’s done well and will ultimately help the author’s career.

DB: When you’re looking at a manuscript or negotiating with an author, are there any deciding factors that tend to incline you toward either wanting to work with the author on one project, or that would move you to seek a symbiotic, career-long contract?

JM: My preference is always to work with the author and help shape the career for their entire body of work. But I have worked with authors who, for instance, were presenting me with a nonfiction project when they already had an agent for their fiction. I never think that I’m just “one and done” with an author.

DB: What would you say are the do’s and don’ts of writing a query letter, and a hook?

JM: There are so many—too many to mention. We could do an entire interview just on the writing of the query letter! But if I had to narrow it down to the top three pet peeves it would be, sending out the mass email query to dozens of agents at the same time (doing homework is so crucial and picking the agents to whom you submit is not unlike dating—see who you think represents the types of book you are writing), this just comes off as lazy. If someone simply writes “check out my project” and includes a link, that isn’t going to work either. Be sure to look at each agent’s website to see how they like to receive projects. I’m guessing that not one will want to click through to a link. And finally, treat the query letter like a cover letter to a resume. Be professional, smart, and courteous. You’d be surprised to see how that goes a long way. Every time I open a query letter I hope that it’s going to be something I’ll fall in love with.

D_Bumpus_headshotDavid Bumpus is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles, and the Editor-in-Chief of Lunch Ticket. He graduated from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is working on getting his motorcycle racing license.

Anne Ursu, Author

Anne Ursu

Photo: John W. Ursu

I recently spoke with Anne Ursu, who has written both adult and young adult novels. She lives in Minneapolis and teaches at Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children, which is a low-residency program.

Ursu is the author of five middle grade fantasies as well as two novels for adults. Her most recent book, The Real Boy, won the Horace Mann Upstanders Award and was on the longlist for the 2013 National Book Award. Breadcrumbs, a contemporary retelling of “The Snow Queen,” was named one of the best books of 2011 by Publishers Weekly,, School Library Journal, Bulletin for Center of Children’s Books, and the Chicago Public Library. She is also the recipient of the 2013-2014 McKnight Fellowship in Children’s Literature.

Lisa Trahan: What inspired you to become a writer? Have you always wanted to write or is it something you discovered you wanted to do later on in life?

Anne Ursu: I read a ton when I was a kid. I loved books so much that it seemed natural to me that the next step would be making them. And I think I had an identity as a writer in my school—in seventh grade, we had a scary story competition and I won, and I remember feeling like I only won because I was considered the writer in my grade, not because the story was that good. So, clearly, I’d already mastered the internalized self-loathing that comes with being a writer.

LT: Your novels are written for the middle grades. How did you choose this age group versus younger children or teen fiction?

AU: I started by writing two adult books. It sounds odd, but it didn’t occur to me really that writing children’s books was something you could actually do. But a friend of mine published a middle grade book, and that made it seem possible. And then I read Harry Potter. I loved those books so much and it put me back in touch with all the books I loved as a kid. And then I read a lot that had come out in the last few years and I thought, “I want to do this!” And I never looked back.

I feel like you have a lot of freedom in kids books to play around. It seems you have so much more freedom to switch narrators, use magic, play with structure, and just play around with reality and time. Kids completely expect the world to be more than they understand so when you present them with something unfamiliar it doesn’t bother them at all. So to me it’s a very freeing place to write in.

The middle grade age is such an important age, when you’re trying to figure out what the world is really made of. And that’s a real theme in middle grade fiction, which gives you a lot to write about—especially in fantasy. I would love to write picture books, but I’m not good at it. Picture books are a lot like poems—you need to have such control, such technique, such density. They are very very hard.

LT: I read your book The Shadow Thieves and I felt it addressed a lot of issues and as an adult I really enjoyed it. I didn’t feel like it talked down to kids at all.

I don’t sit down and think, “I’m writing for a child now. What does the child need to hear? What’s appropriate?”

AU: I don’t sit down and think, “I’m writing for a child now. What does the child need to hear? What’s appropriate?” For me when I sit down to write a middle grade book, I think about the kid at the center of the story who needs a character journey, begins in a place where they have to grow, the events of the book will make them grow, and that specifically makes the book appealing to a child reader. And I feel a lot of freedom. But I never ever think I have to simplify anything.

LT: Why did you choose Greek mythology for your series, The Cronus Chronicles?

AU: I loved myths as a kid and when it came time to sit down and write a fantasy, that’s what came out. When the book came out I discovered kids weren’t reading myths in school anymore. But thanks to Rick Riordan and his massively bestselling Percy Jackson series, they now all know the myths. Not because of school, but because they are the books that kids want to read. I just did it because I liked it.

Ursu_CronosImmortalFire_book_coverLT: Speaking of Percy Jackson, you tweeted about The New Yorker and their criticism of children reading Percy Jackson.

AU: We as a society always have to have this conversation about popular literature versus literary fiction; we don’t talk as much about “here’s a shelf of literary fiction and here’s a shelf of genre fiction.” I mean fantasy can be literary, or not, and kids read all kinds of things. And now our intelligentsia has realized that criticizing adult popular fiction makes them sound kind of like out-of-touch elitist jerks, and so they’re moving to YA, which apparently everyone can denigrate.

I was enraged that the New Yorker picked these books, in particular because Rick Riordan was a seventh-grade teacher, he’s really concerned about reluctant readers, and he made a whole career out of writing books that will start kids reading. And then they keep reading. The New Yorker article offered no evidence, just snobbish speculation that by reading commercial books, kids will be somehow ruined for other books. A friend wrote a response to this essay by pulling out all this actual research about kids and reading; it shows that all it takes is the hook book, the one book they love, and it gets them reading for a lifetime.

But mostly it was so offensive because parents who read the article might not know any better, they want their kids to be smart and good readers, and now they’re thinking, “Are these books bad somehow?” And then the kid who needs that book to get hooked on reading doesn’t get this book—and these books have gotten approximately a jillion kids to get into reading.

I also have a particular problem with the snobbery towards fantasy and I think she was displaying a good deal of it there. She’s saying these books are myths, pretend,  fantasy,  gods and monsters—when in fact this genre allows you to deal with very serious and very epic themes, about personal responsibility, about social hierarchy and structure, and dismantling societies and the like. Fantasy is very serious business.

The peculiar thing about being in children’s books is listening to the way people outside of it talk about it, and most of the time, they don’t know anything about the field. You see all this stuff about teen books where people are just spouting off all over the place about how these books are ruining America, and they’ve only heard of three teen books. It’s frustrating because I don’t want the conversations that grown up people are having amongst themselves at their erudite cocktail parties to affect the way that kids get books. That’s why we’re all here—to help kids get books. And for me, particularly, having found kid readers to be much hungrier and intellectually curious, creative, and open, than adult readers, it gets me going a little.

LT: I won’t mention John Grisham then (regarding his comments defending a friend of his who was arrested for child pornography).

AU: An interesting thing about 99.5% percent of people who write for children is that they love children. J.K. Rowling loves kids and she’s out there and she’s interacting with them and answering her fan mail, and you feel that Grisham wouldn’t have said any of those things if he really cared about children, and I don’t exactly feel like his books came from a sincere desire to interact with kids. I have nothing against highly commercial books, but I have a lot of trouble with profiting off kids when you don’t give a damn about them.

LT: I’m not sure how much you know about Antioch University and our focus on social justice, and the social responsibility we all have through our art, and representing writing and art as a whole, but when you have a famous writer who makes those comments, it casts a negative light on all of us. We as artists have to take responsibility for what we represent.

AU: I think that’s exactly right. When you are writing for children and teenagers, and when you are an artist in the world, it is important to think about what your place is in this world and what your place is in the broader literary conversation, no matter what you’re writing. You believe the art form matters. You believe this interaction between writer and reader matters, in everything you do and everything you put out there, and when you write for children you hope that somewhere in there you are advocating for children—even if it’s just by giving a crap about them. I love Antioch for that. I think a lot of times in writing programs we can get so internalized because it is our art and our work. But it’s so important to see outside yourself. I love that Antioch teaches that being an artist is about community and the world, and that’s a conversation we have in writing for children a lot, too.

LT: We have been focusing a lot on diversity, racial and otherwise, and how to include people with disabilities, or who don’t just look like us. And I know your novel, The Real Boy, deals with a boy who has autism and even in The Cronus Chronicles, Zee is half black and his grandmother is Malawian, so how important is it for us as writers to bring in characters who are different and not necessarily like typical kids, into children’s literature?

AU: Well, I think we need to expand our notion of what a typical kid is. The white, able-bodied, neurotypical child is the minority—but in children’s books that’s the overwhelming majority. And that’s a huge problem; we’re not serving kids, any kids, and that includes those who see themselves in books all the time.

I wrote the character of Zee to honor my own cousin, who is biracial and his father is Malawian. At the time, I didn’t know anything about the crisis in representation. A few years later when I started to write Breadcrumbs, kids publishing had just gone through a series of conflicts over whitewashed covers. I was spending a lot of time on the internet reading things (instead of writing my book) and so I discovered the broader ongoing conversation about the unbearable whiteness of fantasy, and how kids who aren’t white never get to see themselves as heroes, and then my Cronus Chronicles started showing up on lists of diverse fantasy. And on one hand I was really happy to have written a character on these all-too-short lists. On the other, the realization that there’s such a paucity of diverse characters in children’s literature that Zee, who is the secondary protagonist, showed up on these lists, kind of broke my heart. Then I read a heart-wrenching essay by a teenage girl about what it was like to walk into a bookstore and never see herself on any covers.

So as I was starting this book, I just couldn’t bear adding to the immense list of fantasies that don’t star kids of color. So Hazel, the protagonist, became adopted from India. And my publisher put her right there on the cover, happily.

I think things are going to get better, at long long last. There is a group of amazing authors who began an organization called We Need Diverse Books, and they’ve just raised a few hundred thousand dollars to do all kinds of amazing things. This is the most important conversation in kids books right now. It has been for decades, but social media has allowed the conversation to amplify, and people to organize.

I think the most important thing we can do is attract as many diverse voices to the field as we can.

I think the most important thing we can do is attract as many diverse voices to the field as we can, and then promote their books as loudly as we can. I’m so happy people are talking about it, and I think it’s actually been really good for the community practically. So many great things are happening for writers to think about their role in the broader community.

Ursu_Breadcrumbs_book_coverLT: I see the discussion come up a lot about writing one’s ethnicity, and non-white writers say, “Just because I’m Chinese, why do I always have to write about Chinese people?” And then we have white writers who say, “How can I write from the Chinese POV if I’m not Chinese?” And then you have racism and reverse racism, but the whole point of writing is to explore. I think we get a lot of criticism for trying to write outside of who we are, as both diverse and non-diverse authors.

AU: Of course, there’s a huge power differential in those cases, and for people of color to question whether white people have a right to tell their stories is a whole different issue than writers of color getting boxed in. And I think if you’re white it’s really important to listen to this argument and try to understand everything behind it. And if you make the choice to go ahead, to be really cognizant to take a lot of care.  Listen, and do work, and understand the ways this can go wrong. And I don’t think this work ever ends.

I feel like I’ve learned so much this year. Authors have been talking about clichés and tropes, and some of them I knew, but some I didn’t. When we create we have no idea why our minds reach for certain things, and sometimes it’s because we’ve been fed clichés our whole lives. You don’t know what you don’t know. And now so much information is out there for you.

LT: Like in The Hunger Games, when people were upset to find out Rue was black, when she lived in the South, and I think it was implied fairly well, but people see what they want to see when they read.

AU: That was awful. To me, the real problem with those movies, racially, is that there is no way our dystopian future is going to look that way. There’s no way it’s as white as it is—unless something really cataclysmic happened to people of color, in which case you’d think it would have come up at some point. In the movies the black people are mostly in one district and then almost everyone else is white, and that’s so offensive and absurd. And when we erase people of color from movies, as we keep doing, that allows the racism we saw with Rue.

But in literature we’ve created this very white world—to an absurd extent in fantasy and sci fi. This is how the literature has been for so long that it’s easy for white writers to make a kneejerk mistake and perpetuate all that whiteness—and it takes a step to think past that and to think about the world as it actually is, or, in speculative fiction, how it could be. Which is another reason this conversation is so important. My Real Boy is a fantasy that takes place on a fictional island, and I realized when I was crafting the world that it would be so easy to just make them all white without thinking, and I didn’t have to do that. Everyone on the island is of color, and I’m really embarrassed to say it never would have occurred to me to do that if people weren’t pointing this stuff out.

LT: Are you working on any new projects?

AU: Sort of. I’m very slow. I write really quickly but then I take a long time in between books, so I’m kind of at the point where I’m trying to put something together, but it’s hard and frustrating and I need to kind of get to the point of absolute self-loathing before something comes to me. I keep thinking that I can’t possibly get any more self-loathing than I am right now, but apparently there’s still more to go. It’s been about two years between every book so I’m almost at that point.

LT: What is your writing style? Do you have a set routine?

AU: Well, I used to before I had a child. I would just sit down and write, and I’d write all day, every day, until the book was done and then put it down and give it to readers, and then revise, and go on like that. But now, nothing like that is possible. As much as I try to have a routine, it just doesn’t work, so my challenge is to try to figure out how to fit everything in, and carve out that time for writing, in addition to teaching and taking care of my kid. Somehow being a mom of a young child and being a writer aren’t that compatible.

LT: Do you have any advice you would give writers who are interested in writing Young Adult or middle grade fiction?

AU: Yes, I would just say read a ton. Read in the field, read widely, and figure out what it is that creates a spark in you and why. What do you love? What kind of stories do you want to tell? And I guess, don’t think it’s different. While the characters are of a specific age, I don’t think the writing is that different. You tell a story that you want to tell, the way you want to tell it. If you read enough you’ll see there’s no formula. I imagine at Antioch writers are interested in pushing boundaries and experimenting with form. That’s what pushes everything forward in children’s literature and YA literature. Kids are hungry readers and they want to read something that’s new and then they want to read something that’s incredibly familiar, and they want to read both books fifty times, and that’s what is so great.

LT: I know you said you read Harry Potter. Are there any other books you are reading right now or middle grade books that are particularly your favorites or that you’re looking forward to?

AU: There’s a book coming out in the spring that I want to throw it in the face of anyone who says YA literature is facile—Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby. The language is wonderful, you just want to roll around in it. And it’s really complicated and innovative, and shows what this lit can do. And while we’re on this theme, I just finished a book called The Bone Dragon, a harrowing story of a girl who’s gone through some brutal abuse and now she’s part of a new family. The language allows for magic in a really interesting way, and the author plays with the idea of what’s real and what isn’t—and if you insist on strict realism, you don’t get those kinds of stories. People in the greater world think YA only comprises the blockbuster books—dystopians, vampires, and John Green. But just as in adult fiction, there are all kinds of books for kids and teens.

LT: With these books and with your own writing, you seem to focus more on the magic side of things. Is that your preference or where you find yourself, or do you just love magic?

AU: I came from the theater and playwriting, and the program I studied at taught us to think outside the realistic formula of mainstream American theater. In theater, you can do whatever you want once you stop thinking representationally. You can mess with time and narration and reality—whatever you need to do to tell your story in the best way possible using that medium. You don’t hide the theatricality—you use it. And stories are the same way—we’re not limited by anything but our imagination. I think fantasy allows us to explore more about the human condition. I do read a lot of realistic fiction as well—I like a good story, and also I think it’s really important for fantasy writers to read realistic fiction and really study how the character journey works. But I am drawn to magic. I like magic. Why tell stories if you can’t have magic?

LT: What is your most rewarding experience or what do you love best about writing for middle grades?

AU: Oh, you go to a school visit and the kids are so happy, they’re so excited to meet an author. They’re so excited to talk to you and ask questions. We hear so much about the child reader and what they do and don’t like—gender is a huge issue in middle grade and we keep perpetuating this idea that boys don’t read and girls do, and boys will never read a book with a girl on the cover, etc. etc. etc. And you go and meet kids and realize they are just really hungry for stories, and it’s usually adults placing limits on them. I think so much of our conversation on kids and reading devalues the kids themselves. But then you meet them—the reader on the other end of the book—and they’re so wonderful, and you are very happy you had a story to give them. They deserve our stories.

Lisa TrahanMs. Trahan is an MFA student at Antioch University in Los Angeles. In 2004 she traded the chilly coast of the Atlantic for the friendlier shores of the Pacific. She plays and watches soccer, when not writing about the crazy events viewed from her windows.