Category Archives: Long Articles

These will be substantial pieces including research and cited sources. Like the essays above, they will go through a rigorous editing process and may take a couple of months (or longer) to edit. While funding lasts, we will pay $50 for these longer, researched articles.

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Can We Talk: Writing Contest Ethics in the Age of Social Media

An interview of a famous writer runs at a website with high visibility, the famous writer generous and personable, the interview conducted by a young writer with small press books. It feels good to see: the two writers reaching across generations to talk about literature. Then, a few weeks later, a small press announces the winner of their book-length writing contest on their Facebook page, and the small press writer from the interview has won, the contest judged by the famous writer. What had been good is sullied. The writers on Facebook quickly chime in with congratulations, and, in what isn’t exactly my proudest moment, I type: “Was it inappropriate for the winner to publish an interview with the judge while entered in the contest?” I know how I feel about it, but I am honestly curious about what others think. The writer hasn’t broken any rules, and the contest was read “blind,” where readers review anonymous submissions, so the judge couldn’t have known the manuscript was from the interviewer. Yet, this interview will be at the top of the Google search for anyone curious about the winner of the contest, and it is evidence of repeated personal contact.

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We don’t have a measure for this kind of situation. We live at a time when writers are more easily connected to each other through social media, and there’s such a thing for emerging writers as “Internet famous.” Many writers on Facebook and Twitter who may not know each other at least know of each other, and we call the annual get together of 6,000 writers at the AWP Conference “the Internet in real life.”

At the same time, writers are desperate for book-length publication, while small presses, with small staffs, often without university affiliation and with budgets that dip into the red, have taken up the important work of publishing debut poetry and short fiction collections. These editors who put in their own money and time—they can publish whomever they want. Yet, they bear the onus of fairness when they advertise a contest. While it’s much easier for writers to network today, it’s also easier for personal connections to be revealed via Google searches. The atmosphere around writing contests has changed, and the online writing community is past due for an open public discussion about ethics and responsibility.

 

Nepotism and the Jorie Graham Rule

The disqualification of contest manuscripts from writers of close personal affiliation to readers and/or contest judges is unofficially known as “The Jorie Graham rule,” as the result of a scandal that went public when Foetry.com revealed that Jorie Graham selected a winner for a book contest who was her student, who hadn’t even entered the contest, and who she would be married to a year later (the site has not been active since 2007, but archives are available at foetry.com). Letters between the judges were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and there were whispers of mail fraud, a felony offense, since money was collected through the U.S. Postal Service.

In an interview at We Who Are About to Die, Alan Cordle, the creator of Foetry.com, was asked about the impact of the whistleblower website, and he said:

Poetry publishing post-Foetry is a mixed bag. Countless competitions adopted the Jorie Graham Rule and/or the CLMP [Council of Literary Magazines and Presses] code of ethics. Few would credit those changes to Foetry.com. The CLMP code was a huge disappointment. I asked to be included in the roundtable discussion and Jeffrey Lependorf declined. The people who participated in the creation were some of the worst offenders…. The ethics code is a wishy-washy non-position–so as not to offend anyone, I imagine. Any press can claim to adhere to it and then do whatever the hell they want.

As someone who has entered book-length writing contests for years (including the infamous Zoo Press contest, where the publisher misspent the money and cancelled the prize), I have to say that CLMP’s Code of Ethics is vague. Inappropriate relationships are never defined, nor are contest models, nor what might be done when close relationships are identified, while the word ethic/ethically appears six times:

CLMP’s community of independent literary publishers believes that ethical contests serve our shared goal: to connect writers and readers by publishing exceptional writing. We believe that intent to act ethically, clarity of guidelines, and transparency of process form the foundation of an ethical contest. To that end, we agree to 1) conduct our contests as ethically as possible and to address any unethical behavior on the part of our readers, judges, or editors; 2) to provide clear and specific contest guidelines—defining conflict of interest for all parties involved; and 3) to make the mechanics of our selection process available to the public. This Code recognizes that different contest models produce different results, but that each model can be run ethically. We have adopted this Code to reinforce our integrity and dedication as a publishing community and to ensure that our contests contribute to a vibrant literary heritage.

It’s surprising how far some presses are willing to go to ensure contest integrity. The University of Georgia Press’s Flannery O’Connor Prize and The University of Nebraska Press’s Prairie Schooner Prize spell out every step of the selection process. It should be noted that these are blind contests, where the manuscripts are submitted anonymously, which is the norm, but for the Nebraska or University of Georgia Press’s book contests, if a reader even so much as recognizes the work submitted, they are supposed to inform the contest administrator so that the manuscript can be reassigned.

The reasons for these presses going out of their way to avoid any appearance of favoritism should be obvious: because careers can be made, because nepotism is a regular part of publishing, and because writers have paid contest fees. There are very few opportunities to publish poetry or short fiction collections and the small presses have mostly taken over this work. Since contests are self-funded, there’s little financial risk and the press will very likely come out ahead (even a lesser known contest will likely receive more than 400 entries, and with each entry bringing in twenty dollars or more, that’s $8000 to cover the $1000 prize and the publishing costs). What is normally a risky endeavor for a press, to publish a book of poetry or short fiction from an emerging writer, is paid for up front regardless of sales. For the writer, winning a book-length contest can give them the line in the vita that lands a teaching job. It can be the thing that gets a literary agent to take notice of their work. It can lead to more publishing opportunities down the road.

I don’t believe that nepotism in publishing is necessarily a bad thing. Anyone who has ever gone through a slush pile knows that there are times when nothing excites enough to be selected, and solicitation isn’t exactly a dirty secret. Editors I knew personally have published my work. As a guest editor, I’ve also published friends. I can align my choices by what the CLMP Code of Ethics proclaims: I connected readers and writers by publishing exceptional writing. Nepotism in publishing can be defended since friendships often develop out of a mutual respect for each other as writers.

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When it comes to contests, however, close personal relationships between writers and editors, or writers and judges, should come under scrutiny. Writers should know better than to enter contests when they are friends with the people making the selections. Conversely, the people making the selections should disqualify without hesitation once they discover the entries of friends.

 

The Appearance of Nepotism in Book-Length Writing Contests in Recent Years

When a writer receives that dreaded email or letter from the press that announces the winner of the contest they’d entered many months ago, there tends to be a sinking in the gut. The writer had been hopeful about the contest, and here was confirmation that they hadn’t won. To rub in the salt, in these letters presses tend to be overwhelmingly excited about the fact that someone else had won. It’s common for the language in these letters to declare that “one manuscript stood out above the rest” and/or that there was “a clear winner.” Writers pick themselves back up because they knew when they entered that the odds of winning were slim, and the selection of one manuscript over another always involves subjective taste no matter how objectively the contest administrators try to frame it.

In the Jorie Graham / Foetry era, people who knew about personal connections in contests outed the writers and judges via the Foetry website. We all kind of knew each other, even then, and there was hesitation by some presses to forbid friends of the judges from entering contests because they saw the poetry community as a small tightly knit group. Today, writers’ websites are mostly interested in pop culture and there’s tremendous pressure for writers to be supportive of each other online. With no forum for these kinds of discussions, there’s no reason to believe that the small universe of editors and authors would behave any differently from any other professional network, where the whistleblowers are punished.

I’ll use concrete examples to illustrate the problem, but I won’t name any presses or writers. I’m not out to smear these writers or editors. They made different decisions than other writers and editors would have, but there’s a lack of definition and no clear right way. As a community we need to strive toward an ideal, since “close personal relationships” will become increasingly more difficult to define when we’re all already Facebook friends and we engage with each other daily on Twitter, though we also can’t collectively throw up our hands and simply give up. The editors who run contests, and the writers who enter them, should approach contests with a greater sense of ethical responsibility.

I don’t want to give the impression with the following examples that a prize was awarded to a friend of the judge because of a friendship. I think it’s always more complicated than that. What I do believe, however, is that the contest result was ethically compromised, and that’s enough to matter. In order for a friend of the judge to win a contest, a failure of ethics had to occur on the part of at least two people, the writer who entered despite knowing the judge, and the judge who awarded the prize despite the friendship—each of whom could have individually put a stop to the submission. In that spirit, the instances that follow are not intended to be taken as accusations of nepotism, but to illustrate the appearance of nepotism, which in itself demonstrates a failure on the part of at least two people to strive toward an ideal and suggests that the processes or the people involved at that particular press during that particular contest were measurably ethically compromised.

In order to have a meaningful discussion, I’m presenting these examples anonymously. The press names that follow are made up, since small presses, by definition are noble entities and I really don’t want to take anyone down after they’ve done so much good work. These are presses I respect and the writers, editors, and judges were kind enough to allow me to quote anonymously from our email correspondence in the spirit of open dialogue, though they were understandably hesitant.

 

The “’Blind Reading Defense.

The winner of a recent Edible Crayon Prize (not the name of the press) was selected by a judge who went to the same graduate writing program, at the same time, as the winner. The judge and winner also remained in contact after graduate school as members of an online writing group. Edible Crayon is a small press with a small readership, but their prize has authority. When Edible Crayon was contacted about the contest result for this article, press founders Periwinkle and Burnt Sienna (not their names) said that they “were not, and are not aware” of the relationship, which would mean that neither the winner nor the contest judge ever disclosed it. Periwinkle and Burnt Sienna also said:

…one of the reasons we founded Edible Crayon Press was in response to our suspicion of cronyism in presses both big and small and how that determined what and who those presses published, and our desire to create a press free of that where we could bring to light new voices and genres, and promote that work. We’re proud that all of our books—aside from one anthology—have been by authors who were new to us and chosen out of a reading period or because of a query letter rather than solicited. We’re also proud that the majority of our books are the authors’ first or second book, and we’ve enjoyed seeing our authors’ careers take off as they gain a larger audience.

The Edible Crayon Prize was read blind, with the finalists sent to the judge anonymously, as is common for contests of this type. The press did what they could to keep the contest fair, yet this contest result carries the appearance of nepotism, despite the good intentions and practices of the press editors.

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Burnt Sienna and Periwinkle asked me to contact the judge and the winner to let them know about this article. The contest judge didn’t deny a friendship with the winner, did not tell the editors of the press about that relationship, but instead used the common safeguard of the blind reading as a dodge of personal responsibility while possibly damaging the reputation of the press. The contest judge should have let the editors at Edible Crayon know about the friendship and left it up to them whether or not to move forward with the winner, a situation that the writer put them in, since the writer should not have entered. In a follow-up email, editors Periwinkle and Burnt Sienna informed me that, as a direct result of this contest result, “…we have made what we thought was a clear understanding with the judges more formal by including a note with the anonymous finalist manuscripts we send to the judge that asks them to immediately let us know if they recognize the work of any of the finalists as a friend, family member, former or current student or colleague, and any other close personal relationship. Once the judge selects a winning manuscript, we tell the judge the winner’s name and ask again if they know the writer.” While I have criticized the CLMP code of ethics for being vague, as this quote from the editors makes clear, all the relationships that might be suspect can lead to a long and growing list. CLMP has made available the roundtable discussion, “Creating a Code of Ethics for Competitions,” a discussion of ethical models and practices that can be used to govern the selection process of competitions, so that there are maps for this kind of detail-oriented approach. Except that the landscape has already changed and online relationships will elude definition.

Unfortunately, writers will very likely continue to enter contests where they know a judge, because they feel they can enter so long as their own relationship hasn’t been explicitly forbidden in the contest rules. They are eyeing book-length publication and everything is seen through that lens. After I rudely commented on the Facebook post where the small press had announced the contest winner who interviewed the famous writer / judge, this contest winner emailed me, upset that I would use the press’s Facebook page to smear. However, there is no public forum for this kind of discussion, and the facts were already out there for anyone to see. My mention of what the writer had done was seen by the writer as worse than what the writer had done. The writer had had a choice: enter the contest or publish the interview. The writer’s ambition, however, wouldn’t allow the writer to see the two options as exclusive, and the writer had to do whatever it took to advance. We went back and forth about this in emails, with neither of us conceding a point. The winner of the contest hadn’t broken any rules by publishing an interview with the judge – there’s no explicit rule against that. But decorum should dictate, and this writer should have held off with the interview until after the contest winner had been announced.

We live at a time when relationships are slippery and it seems that if we don’t have specific contest rules that define every possible relationship, writers will feel justified pushing the limits of what might be appropriate. The winner of the Edible Crayon Prize responded in kind, though more defensively. I’m quoting the email to me from the winner of the Edible Crayon Prize in full, in order to represent this issue from the point of view of an ambitious writer:

I’m sorry, but do you not like my book? Do you think it didn’t deserve to win?  It’s my understanding that it is the most popular title to date. Isn’t it a little late to worry about this?

I submitted my book because I had entered two previous Edible Crayon contests. As I’m sure you know, there are not a lot of contests, but the first time I entered I was a semi-finalist. I received positive feedback on the other manuscript as well. Also, Edible Crayon Press is known for genres that best describe my work. I prepared three separate manuscripts for the contest, before I knew who was going to be judge. When I found out who it was going to be, I considered not entering, but I had made a pact with myself to enter several contests. I realized I would be taking myself out of the running for a lot of contests if I didn’t submit to those where I knew the judge. Regarding the Edible Crayon contest, in the end, there was not a monetary prize, just publication, so it did not seem to be blurring any ethical lines. I felt that if anyone had a problem with my entry I would just be out the entry fee. I’d like to note here, that my BA is in philosophy, and I am a VERY ethical person who has actually gone to a great deal of trouble to actually STUDY ethics. The Edible Crayon contest was a blind reading. I decided to let my work stand for itself. 

Everyone seems to know everyone. You and I are Facebook friends. In a world as connected as this one has become, where should one draw the line? It would be almost impossible to enter any contests or have any work published if one became too hung up on relationships. 

Your first book was published by Atticus. Your wife is an editor at Atticus Review, right? Do you consider that nepotism? Just wondering.

As writers and editors we all tend to think of ourselves as ethical human beings, since writing and publishing are not entered into lightly. Yet, the defense that “we all know each other” is becoming common, and I feel like we need to strive toward a greater ideal, especially since it is likely that online networking will make it more difficult for presses to run ethical contests from here on.

For my own part, I’ll address this writer’s counter-accusation. Yes, I have a novel with Atticus Books and my wife was an editor at Atticus Review, but my wife became the editor at Atticus Review after my book was already published. My relationship with the press’s founder made it possible for me to recommend my wife to him when he was looking for an editor. You’re supposed to have a close personal relationship with the people you recommend for jobs. Nor was my Atticus Press novel selected as the result of a contest where fees were collected, but my book was sent via open submission. Writers behave publicly with effervescing positivity online, but there’s nastiness simmering under the surface. The winner of the Edible Crayon Prize uses the question, “Where should one draw the line?” as a way of dodging responsibility for entering a contest that many writers would have chosen not to enter.

 

Another Contest, Another Instance of the “We All Know Each Other” Defense.

Chemical Press (not the real name of the press) has been a springboard-to-success for fiction writers and their contests are important. Chemical Press has three editors (not their real names): Hydrogen, Helium, and Nitrogen. Each read and selected manuscripts for a contest where the winner was a writer Nitrogen went to graduate school with and whose work Nitrogen endorsed on a personal blog. Press founder, Hydrogen, had this to say about the contest result:

Chemical Press has rejected countless submissions by friends, colleagues and peers. For Chemical Press all that matters is the writing. We have rejected famous writers whose work would have made us money but what they sent to us was substandard. We have rejected good friends and people we work closely with. We’ve rejected students and people we admire. Nothing matters to us but the writing. It is clear in our guidelines to the contest that we won’t turn our back on people somehow connected to Chemical Press, tangentially or otherwise. The winner’s manuscript was by far the best.  

Chemical Press uses the fact that they regularly reject the work of friends as evidence that the reading process is fair and objective.

Co-editor, Helium, repeats the fallacy:

I am well aware of the fact that the winner attended graduate school with Nitrogen (though will tell you that Hydrogen is horrible with names and until Nitrogen self-recused from the process, Hydrogen probably was not aware). The book was selected by myself and Hydrogen as the winner of the contest after we had moved it into the long list of finalists, as Nitrogen self-recused from the process due to this and many other manuscripts. Chemical Press has stated from the beginning of the book contest many years ago that we would not eliminate any potential entrants due to their knowing us or vice versa, that as years move forward that eliminates an incredible amount of fantastic potential manuscripts. For us, it simply comes down to the best manuscript. Chemical Press doesn’t use guest judges for our contest. The contest is judged by Hydrogen and Helium. Over the years since we began we have turned down (within and not within contests) numerous people that we both consider friends, even close friends. We’ve lost friends over this. We truly simply care about putting the best books out year after year and believe we’ll be doing so when we publish the collection from this year’s winner.

Whatever Hydrogen and Helium claim, I don’t think the writers who entered their contests were made aware that Chemical Press encouraged friends to enter. Should Chemical Press publish the work of a friend, those who entered should simply understand that the selection process was fair.

As Hydrogen explains, how could Chemical Press possibly disqualify when they know just about everyone:

With all due respect, between myself and Helium and Nitrogen we probably know 75% of all the working and writing literary fiction writers going today. If we removed everyone we knew from the contest we’d be down to 6 people and their illiterate cousins. Of the folks who entered our contest we knew many. We rejected all but one.

When writers who know the judges enter a Chemical Press contest, they enter as one of a large, if privileged, crowd of friends.

Nitrogen did not wish to be quoted in this article, but in correspondence Nitrogen explained that there were several entries that couldn’t be judged fairly and Nitrogen left those submissions for the other editors to read. Nitrogen self-recused once the finalist stage was reached without identifying any friends’ manuscripts or revealing the reason for stepping aside. Nitrogen didn’t believe that friends could be judged fairly, even though Hydrogen and Helium claim that friends were always encouraged to enter their contests.

As Hydrogen put it:

We at Chemical Press judge in house. We can’t then step aside or we’d have no one left to judge. The winner won fair and square. I am sorry the perception disturbs you but there is nothing going on that rises to the level of impropriety. I wish I could convince you but I fear I cannot. Perhaps when you read the winner’s work you will see how pleased we are to have our winner.

I want to repeat that I don’t believe anyone won these contests because of who they knew, but that these contests were ethically compromised, and appearances matter.

There’s simply not a blind process or easily definable category of “personal relationship” that is going to fix this. We all need to strive toward a more stringent ethical ideal, yet that clearly means different things to different people. The chance of book-length publication will continue to seduce writers into entering contests where they know the judges. The ambition of these writers allows them to ignore or make light of personal connections with the judges. Meanwhile, judges and editors claim that the “quality of the work” negates any personal contact, amidst an atmosphere were nearly all of us are making at least some contact. It’s almost as if self-regulation and striving toward an ideal are somehow counter to the aims of running a contest. Knowing this, writers should only enter contests by presses they wish to make charitable donations to, with clear eyes, and no expectations. Writers can’t rely on judges or selecting editors or even other writers to change the way contests are run without added pressure. However, the pressure is currently in the opposite direction, with writers encouraged to be more connected and more supportive of everyone, no matter what.

A writer airs a complaint about the personal connections between winners and judges, and the facts of the case are summarily dismissed in private correspondence, with no public forum. Most of the collective moral outrage of the writing community is reserved for the gaffes coming out of the pop culture, whereas the disgruntled writer is effectively silenced by the oppressive positivity of writers cheerleading online.


IMG_profile_cropJohn Minichillo is the author of The Snow Whale. His column, “How to Be a Better Teacher-Person Through Apathy,” will run at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency from October 2015 through October 2016. He teaches in Tennessee and lives in Nashville.
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The E.B. White of the Wall Street Journal

“When news comes at me, I go the other way,” said reporter Barry Newman. Rarely in a newsroom, the humor writer bucked trends as he pounded his peculiar vision into stories that qualified, on some level, as “news.” When other journalists went south to cover immigration on the Mexican border, he did the opposite, heading north to investigate the empty Canadian-American line. Now retired, the Pulitzer Prize nominee started as a copy boy at the New York Times before he began his unusual 43-year run at the Wall Street Journal in 1970. Nicknamed “King of the A-hed,” he’s legendary for his 400 quirky front page features. Producing comical but sophisticated narratives like “Some Wine With Your White Castle [Slider]?” in over 65 countries and most U.S. States, he established his own newspaper brand of creative nonfiction, decades before it had a fancy name.

NewsToMe_CVFNewman’s new book, News to Me: Finding and Writing Colorful Feature Stories, reveals the craft behind his favorite essays. His publisher, CUNY Journalism Press, launched in 2012, in conjunction with the independent publishing house OR Books. Their mission is to put out books by, for, and about journalists that might not otherwise be published in the commercial marketplace.

At a recent interview in Greenwich Village, the 68-year-old author discussed traveling the world, the secrets of his longevity at the Wall Street Journal, and the story he could never get.

Jessica Milliken: You studied history at Union College, then law at NYU. But you’ve never worked as a lawyer. You grew up in New York, but what inspired you to become a writer?

Barry Newman: My parents believed in the glamour of Hollywood. My mother was in the movie business during the ’30s and traveled often. She influenced my notion of adventure. As a college sophomore, I became editor of the student newspaper, which may have reflected my incredible talent. But I think two juniors were feuding and the editor didn’t want to put either of them in charge, so I won by default. I did a profile of a bell ringer and it wasn’t until someone said it was “well done” that I had any idea I could write. My father would have loved if I’d been a real estate lawyer, yet doing stories for a newspaper from across the world seemed more glamorous to me.

JM: You started as a copyboy at the New York Times, then wrote pieces exploring the Dingo Fence in Australia, McDonalds in Singapore, and Russian and Turkish baths. How did your New Yorker-type articles wind up on page one of the Wall Street Journal?

BN: The Journal is more American than most New York papers. The people there were raw boned, dry-whited Midwesterners. They introduced me to their sensibility and it influenced the stories I did. I’d describe it as ironic distance, amused detachment, elegant understatement. I found my voice writing what’s known as an A-hed, which is humorous journalistic reporting.

JM: At 29 you left to report overseas for 20 years. You’ve been back in New York now for 19 years, and have a wife and daughter. Was it hard to retire?

BN: In America, everyone wants to talk on the phone and doesn’t want to be interrupted because they are busy. Thing is, I want to be there when people are busy, because whatever they’re busy doing is usually something I’d want to write about. I liked doing stories that way. As a white male, I’ve been stereotyped more in parts of New York than anywhere else in the world. Overseas no one cared where I was from or what I did. I’ve talked to everyone from the wealthiest aristocrats in France to the poorest slums in Brazil. The beauty of being an outsider is that no one can cast you.

JM: Is there anyone you wanted to do a story on but couldn’t?

BN: The CIA. I’ve tried a couple of times. When I was in Australia, they supposedly had a base around this place called Alice Springs. I pretended I was a teacher in order to speak with them. I learned it’s always a mistake to pretend you are someone else, especially with the CIA.

JM: In your goodbye roast, your editor of 32 years, David Sanford, said: “Like a clever five-year-old, Barry Newman likes to test limits and pitch fits.”

BN: David cares about accuracy. I hear music. We’d meet in the middle. He’d ask plain questions, I’d insert poetic answers. David didn’t just edit my copy, he contained my impulses. I tried to play inside the Journal’s creative sandbox. My reward was unimaginable freedom to travel and write for a publication that multiplied my every keystroke two million times. You can’t do that without copy editors. You can’t do it without subjects opening their lives to you, when all you open is a notebook. Getting colorful stories is like swimming across the English Channel. You can’t do it alone.

JM: You won the Overseas Press Club award for explanatory journalism and the National Press Club Award for humor writing. Who were your literary influences?

BN: My favorite is E.B. White. I love his elegant style. I also admire Meyer Berger, who wrote the first “About New York” column in the Times. Maeve Brennan, who wrote the “Long-Winded Lady Talkers” in the New Yorker fascinated me. She rarely interviewed anyone and just sat in restaurants listening to conversations. I like writers who take something ordinary, like being stuck in an elevator, and beautifully expand it.

JM: News to Me: Finding and Writing Colorful Feature Stories isn’t a how-to guide, but rather a collection of your essays with commentary. What was your experience authoring a book through an independent press?

BN: I am pleased. Giving classes at CUNY, I would walk through a whole story beginning to end. A few years ago, Tim Harper, who invited me to teach, said he was starting a new press. I didn’t want to do a book. But he came up with the idea of putting together my best stories and giving instructions for my methods of craft to show students I wanted to build a collection and show self-analysis. So my book rocks back and forth between story and essay. Writers evolve their own habits and methodologies. I didn’t go to journalism school and I’m no student of how-to-manuals. I have dipped into the Paris Review’s “Writers as Work” series, where great novelists answer questions about how many words they write in a day, which Bible verses get them started, and whether doodling helps. My drawback in reading interviews with great novelists is that I haven’t read enough of their great novels. My hope for News To Me was that reporters and writers—including would-be journalists— could use the things I’ve learned to make their own work better, and possibly fun.

JM: Will you share a prose trick?

BN: The biggest challenge is the jump: getting the reader to flip the page. In my foreskin restoration story, I measured the column length in the Journal, and set up the paragraphs so just as the man unzipped his trousers, you needed to turn the page.

JM: What advice do you give to anyone who wants to be a better storyteller?

BN: My advice is get out of the office. Stop staring at your screen. Walk around, look at things, talk to people. Hang out with your family. The world is not on the Internet. Keep your eyes open. Once you get past peoples barriers you can learn something new, and gain a friend.


P1015053Barry Newman went to work for the Wall Street Journal in 1970 after a few years as a copy boy and news clerk at the New York Times. In 43 years at the Journal, he wrote more than 400 features for the front page from more than 65 countries and most states in the USA.  He won the Overseas Press Club’s award for explanatory journalism and the National Press Club’s award for humor writing. His stories have been collected in several books, including East of the Equator,  The Literary Journalists and Floating Off the Page.
Jessica Milliken has written for the Miami Herald, Washington Post, and other publications.
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A ‘Xerox Coup d’Etat’: Sophie Seita Interviews Kevin Killian about Editing Mirage and Mirage #4/Period[ical]

Edited by Kevin Killian between 1985 and 1989, the San Francisco little magazine Mirage ran for four issues; the last issue was guest-edited by Dodie Bellamy. Bellamy and Killian continued as co-editors, renaming the magazine Mirage #4/Period[ical], publishing 155 issues between 1992 and 2009. 

Sophie Seita: Can you tell me a bit about Mirage, how it began, why you started it, what you consider(ed) to be its intervention in or contribution to a then-contemporary discourse on feminism, queer politics, and theory?

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Kevin Killian: Oh yes, it is a well-worn story by now. In the early ’80s there was a spate of New Narrative and gay writing and art magazines, among them Soup and Little Caesar and No Apologies, and I worked on the latter of which quite closely with its editor, the poet Bryan Monte, who now lives in Amsterdam where he runs the Amsterdam Quarterly. When Bryan began a MFA program at Brown, he left San Francisco, and took No Apologies with him. The materials I had left over, gathered for No Apologies, I used to start up a new magazine, Mirage, which was the name of our neighborhood bar in the Mission District of San Francisco.

SS: How would you describe the ‘materiality’ of Mirage, the processes of making and printing the magazine?

KK: Mirage, like No Apologies, started off as a perfect-bound magazine and would cost about $1000 an issue. That was a hefty sum for one man to raise in 1985 or 1986. I carried on like that for awhile until the fourth issue, the so called “Women’s Issue,” which grew so much my guest editor and I could not afford to print it, so we delayed publication for four years and finally caved in. My guest editor was having an intense relationship with a young man who owned his own Xerox machine and he offered to let her print it on that, so we did, “comb binding” each issue with his binding machine that punched nineteen rectangular holes in the paper and the covers. We didn’t call it “comb binding” back then, I can’t remember what the word was for it back then. But anyhow this system held up pretty well. The issue finally appeared, and Dodie Bellamy, my guest editor, wrote an introduction called “Four Years in the Making.”

For subsequent issues Dodie had the idea for her own feminist magazine which she called “Period[ical],” and the next issue was called Mirage #4/Period[ical] #1, and it became even more low rent, a Xeroxed twenty page monthly, stapled in the top left hand corner. From then on she was my co-editor. Somewhere in there we got married.

SS: If you had to characterize the magazine, or place it historically, what would you say, or how would you delimit its shape and scope and contents?

KK: Is “delimit” the act of removing limits from things, like lifting gates simultaneously in a corral, or opening doors in a boxcar? I don’t recognize the word. To characterize it I would say that it was a zine now, instead of a journal, and like all zines deliberately contingent and inarticulate, but interested in the very latest developments in art and poetry, and sexual transgression I guess. We published everything we wanted to. We would go to readings and ask people to let us print their poems in the very next issue (i.e., within a month). The novelty of this instant approach was something altogether new and appealing to writers and artists. It was rather punk you might say.

SS: Which magazines were you reading at the time of publishing Mirage? Did any magazines or other publications inspire you and Dodie to start the magazine? Would you see, for instance, Soup, HOW(ever), Chain, and Big Allis, somehow related to, or in conversation with Mirage or its later incarnation as Mirage #4/Period[ical]? I’m also particularly interested in your Women’s Issue… But perhaps you were also influenced by much earlier magazines, such as modernist magazines?

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KK: The (affected?) punctuation of women’s journals like How(ever), which incidentally Dodie had a hand in designing,[1] and the Canadian—oops, now I’m forgetting the name, Sophie,[2] but it was even more goofy than How(ever)—inspired her to call her part of the thing “Period[ical].” The “period” was the idea of the KSW [Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver, BC] poet Deanna Ferguson, always an iconoclast who asked her, “Dodie, you’re doing a zine that appears once a month, with a women’s slant? How about Period ha ha ha!” So “Period” it was, and the punctuation imps made it “Period[ical].” Yes, we were reading and participating in the other magazines of the period, though the ones you mention range widely and include some publications with much greater institutional support than ours. We patterned ourselves on the Spicer-run magazine Open Space, which was pre-planned to last only one calendar year (indeed the first issue of Mirage was called #0, to match up with Open Space #0, the “Prospectus Issue,” and our #0 was also our “Prospectus Issue,” and we appropriated the cover of Open Space #0 for our Mirage #0, a Bill Brodecky line drawing of George Stanley’s face, with the Duchampian legend, “This is not the cover of Open Space, this is a mask you can wear on your head” on it). Steve Clay and Rodney Phillips’ survey of earlier avant-garde poetry periodicals, A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980: A Sourcebook of Information, credits Spicer and Fran Herndon, who edited J magazine, with beginning what they call the “mimeo revolution.” While Mirage started no revolutions, we were just one of many small publishing houses who did their best work after hours, the Xerox machine ablazing, and you might call it a Xerox coup d’etat.   We did feel we were seizing power from the corporation, therefore from the state.

SS: Would you say that Mirage was a coterie or a deliberately non-coterie magazine, or put more positively: a community magazine? If so, was this community or ‘groupness’ that the magazine might have established—or contributed to—or witnessed—conceived of more aesthetically or socially or both? In how far were your and Dodie’s friendships reflected in the editorial choices you made? Would you agree that—broadly speaking—many feminist and queer magazines from the ‘80s and ‘90s onwards attempted a greater degree of inclusivity, both in terms of the poets’ backgrounds but also in terms of aesthetics? Was there also a sense of paranoia or anxiety about this need for inclusivity?

KK: We were having a big debate about coterie at the time, for this was the period in which my life of Jack Spicer was rejected by Cal on the grounds that (according to one anonymous reader’s report) it would cater to, and only be bought by, a “coterie of California homosexuals,” which seemed so perverse an objection. If Spicer’s audience could be dismissed as a “coterie,” then long live coterie; by the mid ’90s Lytle Shaw was starting his dissertation on Frank O’Hara as a “coterie poet,” and once he started affirming it, we felt better about the word, much better. That said, we were indeed a community magazine, given out for free at readings or in our travels, and we wanted it to be a place where new poets could mingle with established ones, to break down those lines of age that continue to strangle poetry today.

For example, someone very close to me was excluded from a female poets’ group last summer, formed ad hoc to combat sexual violations within the poetry community, and the reason given was that she was then over 50. As one gets older one realizes that the prison house governing our lives separates us from kindergarten on, into separate cells of age, of “generation,” to divide us perhaps even more thoroughly than by class.

In response to “Would you agree that—broadly speaking—many feminist and queer magazines from the ‘80s and ‘90s onwards attempted a greater degree of inclusivity, both in terms of the poets’ backgrounds but also in terms of aesthetics?”:

Especially in California and especially in San Francisco, a greater inclusivity was managed by a general ignoring of aesthetics, and by and large of quality. Frankly we didn’t care whether a piece of work succeeded at all, much less having to be perfect, for SF is the land of mistakes and its art practice has always been about the contingent, the misbegotten, the experimental, the botched, the ephemeral and the freakish. We had a zine in which Barbara Guest could be found next to the poems of the school janitor. There was no shame in writing like either. Instead a vitality and a complex multivalence was born.

SS: Did you ever participate in a forum (or forum-like section) in a magazine (I’m thinking of HOW2, Raddle Moon, Chain, Poetics Journal, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, M/E/A/N/I/N/G—all of which featured such roundtables, forums, and symposia frequently)? I’d be interested to hear if you feel that such forums in a sense of solidarity among all or some participants, or whether such solidarity emerged rather from non-page-based practices and conversations. I’m also interested in establishing a lineage with earlier modernist magazines, which featured similar sections, in which editors posed questions about a magazine’s ‘project’ or ‘future’.

KK: In Mirage we did have some special issues which focused on one topic. We had one stunt, you might say, in which we mailed tons of people we wanted to write for us a Xerox of the then-rare Hotel Wentley Poems and asked them to think about it and write something about Wieners. We took a whole party of local writers to a revival of De Sica’s Terminal Station and asked them to talk about neo-realism and the Hollywood system. Not sure if this is what you have in mind. I’ll have to consult my CV to see which of the five journals above I participated in, and what I did for them. Dodie was usually asked to do everything.

SS: What were the contemporary responses to Mirage? Were there any reviews?

KK: I just remember Charles Bernstein saying that Mirage was the absolute low end of high art.

SS: What were your (and other poets’) connections with other collectives (literary/artistic and activist/political)? Did people think of themselves or others as ‘avant-garde’ in a self-consciously historical or academic way (thinking through the tradition of the historical avant-gardes), or would they have described their own or other people’s practice as ‘avant-garde’?

KK: We were in the New Narrative and as such, we were thought of as fellow travellers to all other collectives. Not for us the war on Language Poetry, or later Flarf, or whatever, upon which other poets sharpened their petards. Yes, we were in the avant-garde, but none of us were PhDs and I’m not sure about what “academic” means in terms of our thoughts about ourselves. We were outside of and opposed to the academy in general.

SS: Did you have launch parties for Mirage issues, and which readings did you go to? And how did (or did not!) these readings reflect a print-community made visible through live readings or parties or political meetings?

KK: Looking through my datebooks for the period I see that I would attend three or four readings a week, and as many art openings; it was also an intensely political period and there were other sorts of organizational meetings and demos to attend. Sometimes looking back I don’t know I got everything done, but one way was to skimp on my own writing. It took Dodie and me both many years to finish our second and third novels. I mean decades. Launch parties, none. Every reading was a launch for the latest issue of our zine which we would bundle up and take with us everywhere. We did attend the launch parties of others—a magazine like Poetics Journal, which might appear once a year. You know about the special issue of Aerial on Lyn Hejinian? It’s been in the works for over 15 years. But we ran every month, due to the luxury of being crumby.

SS: How important was it to poets, artists, and curators to involve the public? Did you see magazines (your own and those of others) as providing a public forum of sorts? Did magazines create their own public (inside and outside the publication)?

KK: I suppose we saw it as creating an audience from the public, or better yet, an assemblage, a funk-junk creation like the works of Bruce Conner or Jay DeFeo in San Francisco. We were one of the few zines for example to perform a lot of archival work. It wasn’t enough just to have men and women appearing together, or a wide racial panoply, or different ages, but we wanted to the living and the dead to appear in our pages, side by side, as though poetry was occurring in a séance.

What invigorating questions! Thank you, Sophie, for thinking of us for this.

[1] Dodie designed the HOW(ever) logo.

[2] SS: Do you mean (f.)lip? KK: Sophie, you are exactly right, I couldn’t remember the name of “f(lip)” or whatever it was. I have heard these forms of punctuation referred to as “post-structuralist” and that seems right.


IMG_0495Kevin Killian, one of the original “New Narrative” writers, has written three novels, Shy (1989), Arctic Summer (1997), and Spreadeagle (2012), a book of memoirs , and three books of stories. He has also written two books of poetry, Argento Series (2001), and Action Kylie (2008). A third appeared in February 2014—Tweaky Village, from Wonder Books. With Peter Gizzi he has edited My Vocabulary Did This To Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (2008)—for Wesleyan University Press. Wesleyan also brought out Killian and Lew Ellingham’s acclaimed biography of Spicer in 1998. For the San Francisco Poets Theater Killian has written forty-five plays, and the anthology he compiled with David Brazil—The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater 1945-1985—has become the standard book on the subject. Recent projects include Tagged (2013), introduction by Rob Halpern, Killian’s intimate photographs of poets, artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers and intellectuals; and forthcoming, with Dodie Bellamy, The Nightboat Anthology of New Narrative Writing 1975-1995. He teaches writing to MFA students at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. (Pictured with Dodie Bellamy. Photo by Tariq Alvi.)
SoundEye Festival CorkSophie Seita works with poetry on the page, in performance, and in video. She is the author of Meat (Little Red Leaves, 2015), Fantasias in Counting (BlazeVOX Books, 2014), 12 Steps (Cambridge: Wide Range, 2012), and i mean i dislike that fate that i was made to where (Wonder, 2015, a translation from the German of Uljana Wolf). A full-length translation of Uljana Wolf’s selected poems, for which she received a PEN/Heim award, will be published by Belladonna in 2016. Her videos and other works have been exhibited and performed in the US, UK, Ireland and Germany.  She lives in New York, previously curated the simultaneous and live-streamed ‘unAmerican Activities Transatlantic Reading Series’ between London and New York, is a curator for the Segue Reading Series, and is currently finishing her PhD on avant-garde little magazines. (Photo by Trevor Joyce.)
Sue Shapiro at 20 in the Village, where What's Never Said is set

What’s Never Said and the Small Press: An Interview with Susan Shapiro

In her novel What’s Never Said, upcoming from the independent New York-based press Heliotrope, veteran author and teacher Susan Shapiro shares a story of obsessive love between a student and her professor. The book zips back and forth from the 80s to 2010, moving between his and her (often clashing) perspectives. Shapiro herself is someone who’s seen the writing world from many angles; we were thrilled to hear her thoughts on working with both large publishers and a local, smaller house, and on self-reinvention.

Sarah Herrington: You’re a New York Times bestselling author with major publishers for the last 12 years. So why give your new novel What’s Never Said to the Greenwich Village-based indie press Heliotrope?

Susan Shapiro: I was overjoyed to publish six books with top houses: Random House, St. Martins and Penguin. But I found they care a lot about sales and unfortunately my last novel sold about 5 copies. So that doesn’t make my next work of fiction very desirable.

A few big editors told me they admired What’s Never Said but after having it for months, they seemed ambivalent or suggested major changes such as getting rid of the poets, shrinks and Manhattan, which apparently doesn’t “play in Peoria.” But that was 90% of the book. Editors at a Jewish publisher liked the manuscript—it’s my most Jewish book, with an Israeli character. Yet the heroine doesn’t end up married to a Jew—apparently a big shanda. (“Shame” in Yiddish.) So I had to rethink whether I wanted the book to say something more important about my heritage. But truthfully, my religion is confessional poetry.

Herrington: I love that.

Shapiro: Another editor my age liked the older Lila better and thought I should revise the whole book that way. But I already did three memoirs in my 40s with a more seasoned voice (Five Men Who Broke My Heart, Lighting Up, and Only As Good as Your Word). So I kind of loved being twenty again through my character.

Sue Shapiro at 20 in the Village, where What's Never Said is set
Sue Shapiro at 20 in the Village, where What’s Never Said is set

An editor I admire who’d read my last coauthored memoir, The Bosnia List, suggested I switch back and forth between 1980 and 2010 every single chapter, the way I did in Bosnia List. But that would have required a total revision. And nobody was saying, “We’ll pay you now and help you revise it.” They were sort of saying, “Spend another year ruining something that already works for the slight chance we might then decide to say yes.”

Meanwhile my long time writing group—who I completely trust—was telling me it was my best book. I was depressed, trying to figure out what to do at the end of March when I learned that Naomi Rosenblatt at Heliotrope had just started taking fiction. I’d met her two years ago when she published my student Royal Young’s great memoir Fame Shark and she also did my colleague Kate Walter’s funny new memoir Looking for a Kiss. I really liked Naomi, thought she was a very cool Greenwich Village hippie chick, like me, around the same age.

When I mentioned my novel, she said she’d read it right away. Within a week she told me she loved it and wanted it exactly way it was. She’d had a flirtation with a professor in college, too. She totally got what I was trying to do and had very few changes. I was ecstatic.

The downside: she could hardly offer any money upfront. I spoke to my shrink about how demoralizing it was that none of the other editors would match the advances I’d had in the past, debating whether I should go with the great Heliotrope editor who got the book the best, but for little remuneration upfront. He asked me, “What would make you happy about this?“  My last two books were just paperbacks. Five years ago I was jealous that my cousin Molly Jong-Fast’s novel had a gorgeous purple cover. So I told him, “If it came out in hardcover, really fast, in August—when I don’t have to teach—with a purple cover.” I told Naomi and she said, “Done.”

Herrington: With the purple cover and everything?

Shapiro: Yes! That’s what’s so fantastic about indie publishing. You have more of a say and don’t have to follow the really long slow schedule and wait 18 months for your book to see print. Also I’m not known to play well with others. In high school I was voted “Least likely to join a cult, most likely to start one.” When I started teaching at The New School, I told them “I’ll give my students my heart and soul. But don’t make me do meetings.” In 23 years they never have.

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With Heliotrope, there’s no committee to placate, as there is with major publishers. It’s mostly just Naomi. She gets to say yes or no. And the royalties are much better for writers. I get 50%. Some of her authors have actually made more money that way then by getting big advances upfront.

Herrington: I love how Heliotrope is a Greenwich Village-based press and most of the story is set in the Village. How did this story start for you?

Shapiro: In my first memoir, Five Men Who Broke My Heart, which came out 2003, I spilled all the secrets of my former flames. But there was one story I could never tell—until now. I had to fictionalize. A mentor once told me I wrote best about sex and people I loved. I kind of always had this story of falling for my professor—which I did—in the back of my mind. Then one day 5 years ago I saw him at a literary party. And he didn’t remember me. I flipped out. On the way home, I tearfully relayed what happened to my husband Charlie, who’d been at the event with me. When I told him what happened, Charlie laughed and said the professor knew exactly who I was. The guy had been staring at him—and us together – the whole night.

I wondered if he did know who I was. If so, I was thrilled. Because if he was still pissed off at me—thirty years later—that meant he did really care about me, too. So that was the initial spark. I came home and wrote about what happened and how mortified I felt and showed it to my writing group. To quote one of the members, “You should have gotten old and bitter a long time ago, because this rocks.”

Herrington: So why write it from both Daniel and Lila’s points of view?

Shapiro: In my 33-year career, I’ve had to reinvent myself every 5 years to keep making a living, reinvigorate and shake things up. After my last novel tanked, instead of giving up on books like a normal person would have, I wound up publishing two coauthored nonfiction projects. Unhooked was a substance abuse book I wrote with my brilliant addiction specialist Fred Woolverton. The Bosnia List was a memoir I did with my Bosnian physical therapist, Kenan, who survived the Yugoslavian war.

I love first person writing, that’s always been my favorite. So I coauthored both books in the first person in their voices. That meant I spent several years and 600 pages in a man’s head. When it came to writing What’s Never Said I tried the male’s voice and liked it. I’ve always been enthralled by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, so I had that kind of a neurotic smart Jewish male hero in my head. I’d also never published a book in third person, so I tried. They say, “You can do anything as long as it works,” and it seemed to.

Herrington: After so many acclaimed memoirs, why a novel?

Shapiro: I like the idea of a memoirist writing fiction about poetry. I was a failed poet—after my MFA I tried writing and publishing poems seriously for a decade. But I had a mentor, the late Harvey Shapiro (no relation) who was my editor at The New York Times Magazine. When I asked him to blurb my small press poetry book, he did, but he was blunt about what he really thought. He told me, “You have too many words and not enough music.“

I was heartbroken until I started making way more money writing about the same obsessions (bad relationships, addictions) for magazines and newspapers. Then I lengthened my work on the same topic for memoirs. Harvey thought I had more poetry in my prose than my poems. I published three memoirs by a relatively young age (in my forties.) But a short-term relationship that didn’t work out in the past wasn’t really worthy of another memoir. I couldn’t have told this story in nonfiction. But it felt right to use real life as a jumping off point, then fictionalize and dramatize more. My astute Knopf editor friend Deb Garrison once told me, “A novel that’s merely autobiographical is a great disappointment. But a memoir that reads like a novel is a great surprise.”

Though I never really understood people who proclaim, “I am a poet,” “I am a novelist,” or “I am a journalist,” when most authors have to switch genres several times over a long career. John Updike wrote short stories, novels, art criticism, bad poetry. Hell, the guy even drew his own pictures on his New Yorker pieces. I’m doing a panel about the benefits of switching genres. I just call myself a writer. And I teach by night, which started out as a way to pay bills and ended up a second calling.

Herrington: I agree with the “writer” label, across genres. Why did you set the book in the MFA program and the poetry world?

Shapiro: I have little imagination. That was where it happened. Plus I like the irony that two poets dedicated to the written word couldn’t communicate or tell each other anything important. At one point the hero says, “Poetry is about what’s in between the lines, what’s never said.” It was fun to wrap the book around what’s never said between them—and also there’s a big sexual secret that neither Daniel nor Lila ever tell their spouses.

Herrington: You and your character Lila share hunger for a big career and big love. Can an ambitious person have it all?

Shapiro: Freud says there’s two life forces: work and love. I’ve been blessed to have found joy in both. Though I needed a lot of therapy to get there and it took a long time. I married late and my first real book didn’t come out until I was 43. I think Rilke said a creative soul shouldn’t marry until 35 because before then you don’t really know who you are.

Herrington: In real life is it ever a good idea to revisit an old flame?

Shapiro: It’s funny, in Five Men Who Broke My Heart, which I started when I was 41, I went back to re-meet my top 5 heartbreaks of all time to find out what really happened. When I asked my high school boyfriend if we could get together to talk about the past, he said “I’d rather take out my own appendix with a bottle of Jack and a dull spoon.” But that made a great line, and we eventually did meet and I got a Modern Love piece out of it. All the other men were kind and generous and I’d say that experience was mind-blowingly wonderful. So the answer at that point would have been: yes! Call your exes! Mine your past for material. As Joan Didion says, “A writer’s always selling someone out.”

But I see What’s Never Said as a sort of fictional sequel to Five Men that shows the darker side. Maybe what was cute at 40 isn’t as adorable post- 50. Or some old lovers aren’t meant to ever become friends. In my writing workshop, when you bring in work, the worst insult is “There’s no blood here.” There’s definitely blood in What’s Never Said.

Herrington: I feel like you’re creative not just in your writing but in how you promote your work. For this project you’re hosting a Speed Shrinking for Love charity event, a Bring an Ex For Just Desserts party.  How do you come up with this stuff?

Shapiro: Well, my mom was a party planner so I use to watch her do funny theme parties. And—as I’ve written about—I no longer drink, smoke, toke. I quit bread, sugar, diet soda. (Subject of the last novel, Speed Shrinking.) Addictive personalities like mine don’t stop being compulsive. They just switch compulsions. So publishing books and book events are my new addictions. I have so much fun at book events I sometimes feel like I’m on heroin.

Herrington: As your one-time student, I remember you saying that “writing is a way to turn your worst experience into the most beautiful.” I feel that way myself. Now that you’re a popular writing professor at The New School, is publishing a book about your own confusing days as a student healing?

Shapiro: Definitely. Leaving Michigan and moving to New York at 20 to get my MFA and study with someone like Daniel changed my life. It led to all my dreams coming true. In some ways I’ve emulated him and feel intense gratitude. It seems sad that I can’t ever tell him how much he meant to me. So there really are words that were never said. Maybe in some ways the book is a love letter, written thirty years late.


Sue PicSusan Shapiro, an award-winning New School writing professor, is the New York Times bestselling author of 10 books including the coauthored Unhooked (Skyhorse Press, 2012) and The Bosnia List (Penguin 2014.) Her new novel, What’s Never Said, which took six years to finish, is just out from Heliotrope. Follow her on Twitter at @Susanshapironet.
Sarah Herrington has written for the New York Times, L.A. Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Tin House, Interview, Poets & Writers and she was named “a poet to watch” by O: The Oprah Magazine. She’s author of the poetry collection Always Moving (Bowery Books, 2001), Om Schooled (Addriva Press, 2012), Essential Yoga (Fair Winds Press, 2013) and coauthor of Wanderlust (Rodale, 2015). 
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Silverfisted: An Interview with Deborah Landau

“I love to be frenetically busy,” says Deborah Landau, author of The Uses of the Body. In her third collection, out since April, she explores the complexities of living in a female body. In an honest discussion, Landau pondered how a woman can be defined by her biological usefulness.

Published by Copper Canyon Press, an independent, non-profit founded in 1972, which is currently based in Port Townsend, Washington. The press believes that poetry is vital to language and living and they have produced over 400 titles, including translation, anthologies, prose books about poetry, reissues of out-of-print classics and works from emerging and revered American poets.

Landau draws from her own experience and brings the reader on a journey that is sometimes dark, haunting, sensual and funny; the collection deals with traumatic subjects: aging, illness, the death of a close friend. Though the tome contains suffering, ultimately it ends on a note of hope with her daughter’s birth. Landau is the Director of NYU’s Creative Writing program. She seems too glamorous to live in Park Slope, with her husband, three kids and a dog.

Linda Kleinbub: Your poems seem very personal. How do they reflect on your own life?

Deborah Landau: My poems are distilled. They come from life, but they are not my life. It’s important that the poems to work as art, on the level of language. So the book isn’t straightforwardly autobiographical–though a lot of these things did happen.

UsesBodyCover-1Kleinbub:  I love the line in the first poem, “I don’t have a pill for that, / the doctor said.” You reference that death is inescapable. Are you focused on the negative side of aging?

Landau: There are troubling things that aren’t going to go away. Our bodies are going to wear out, we’re going to get old and die. There is nothing anyone can do to change that. My psychologist sister-in-law says I lack the ability to be in denial. But how can one integrate the simultaneity of pleasure and suffering in the world? Eventually something horrible will happen to all of us, and there’s no escaping it. I wish there were a pill for that.

Kleinbub: The book begins with a celebration. “Well look, the wedding guests are here again.”

Landau: I work in Paris each summer (directing writing programs for NYU) and one summer I lived across the street from a little synagogue.  Every day at noon there was a wedding. At first it was so charming.

Kleinbub: It is an important rite of passage, but you seem to have an irreverent attitude towards it. Your dark wit has been compared to Dorothy Parker, “Now scurry ho, before someone else / goes down on the bride,” “We’re going to swallow vodka / and slap down money.” Where did this perspective come from?

Landau: As the days wore on the weddings appeared more and more formulaic—each a kind of production featuring the same set, plot, the costumes, and characters, with virtually no variation. I was troubled by how systematic and regulated they were, the same ritual every day. The long poem that opens the book came out of the experience of watching those weddings from my window every day for a month.

Kleinbub: “Mr. & Mrs. Suffering” is filled with beautiful, lines like “He knows every road of me. / Can find the turnoff without a map.” Yet the same time there is caution, “One should make full use as possible / before times up. In Paradise / You should appreciate. Don’t squander.”

Landau: The sequence considers the pleasures and complexities of marriage and domestic life–the experience of being in a long-term monogamous relationship, the comforts of commitment, what happens to desire.

Unknown-3Kleinbub: When did you realize that you wanted to be a poet?

Landau: When I was thirteen my mother gave me Anne Sexton’s Love Poems as a gift. I was hooked, that book was so intense. I hadn’t seen poetry like that before.

Kleinbub: I know your mother died when you were in your late 20’s, my mother passed away when I was in my early 30’s.

Landau: It never gets any easier! We still need these people. I still miss her terribly.

Kleinbub: What are the advantages working with a small press?

Landau: I feel very fortunate to be a Copper Canyon author. They have an amazing list, make beautiful books, and excel at getting the books out to readers. The staff there is amazing, they take a great deal of care with the books they do, and it’s a pleasure to work with them.

Kleinbub: Can you describe your experience working with Copper Canyon Press versus working with other publishing houses?

Landau: My first book (Orchidelirium) was selected by Naomi Shihab Nye as winner of the Robert Dana Anhinga Prize for poetry and published by Anhinga press. Most first books of poetry find their way into the world through a contest — it’s exciting to win, but after that you’re sort of on your own. I was grateful when my second book (The Last Usable Hour) was accepted by Michael Wiegers. It’s been nice to feel part of a publishing house in a more ongoing way.

Kleinbub: Does teaching summers in Paris affect your writing?

Landau: I’m in Paris twice a year (a month in the summer, 10 days in January) to direct two programs for NYU: an undergraduate intensive and a low-residency MFA. It’s inspiring to be in that beautiful city, surrounded by writers, and the change of scenery and shift in routine is revitalizing. It’s great to get away, and I have more time to write while I’m there–I’m working, but don’t also have to take care of three kids, make everyone’s breakfast, and walk the dog.

Kleinbub:  Your book begins focused on fears about aging and death, “It scares me to watch / a woman hobble along / the sidewalk, hunched adagio,” yet “Late Summer” is about the miracle of birth.

Landau: That sequence came in a headlong rush. I was on a train (coming home from AWP Boston) and had an incredibly vivid sense memory of the totally unexpected conception and birth of my daughter. Then when I got home someone had sent me the video of Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games”. The visual imagery and mood is nostalgic old Hollywood, and for some reason it triggered something for me.  I wrote that last long sequence. While most of the book was written while I was in Paris, that section was written in Brooklyn.

Kleinbub: Can you describe the memories that emerged?

Landau: I’d returned home from Paris, and hadn’t seen my husband for a month. Our boys were away at camp, we had a few days to relax by ourselves, and inadvertently created our daughter. The whole thing felt so strange, I mean, you expect terrible surprises in life, like a cancer diagnosis, and then this beautiful thing happens. It was a marvelous surprise, this unexpected surging up of life force.

Kleinbub: In your poems about your daughter you make her into a foreign object, “stain purpling the white field,” and “bald and silverfisted.” Were you trying to emulate Sylvia Plath?

Landau: I’ve read a lot of Plath and the influence is there, of course–though I didn’t set out to “emulate” her. I hope it’s more subtle than that! Pregnancy is surreal – in some ways it does feel like a kind of alien invasion. It’s all very science fiction to have something growing inside you, and then to have a person emerge fully formed from your body.

Kleinbub: I loved this passage from “Late Summer:”   

What climate then immodest

fully boarded was I and set off with her—

 

Xanax Vermox rivulets radiation—ferried her flighting

to California to grow rioting drunk and dance at M’s wedding

 

she just a pale and puny welled inside me

 

without visa without a pretty box

dollface-down I could have scorched

 

her could have drown her could have crushed her

not knowing veined was she

and my blood rich and alcohol.

 

She flipped around in there.

I slept off the buzz in my hotel.

 

Landau:  Thank you. I’d been to a wedding in California, and gotten quite drunk. I didn’t know I was pregnant. If I’d known, I’d have skipped the Xanax and cocktails.

Kleinbub: So the last line “I slept off the buzz in my hotel” is literal?

Landau: Yes. But my daughter turned out fine, thank goodness.

Kleinbub: I know you still miss your mom, but how do you feel the new mother/ daughter relationship in your life?

Landau: It’s wonderful. I lost my mother, I had two sons. I’d always wanted a daughter and then she showed up.  She’s just turned three. She is lovely and affectionate. My sons adore her, we all do. She’s been the sweetest addition to our family.


 

Unknown-1Deborah Landau is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently The Uses of the Body (Copper Canyon Press, 2015) and The Last Usable Hour,a Lannan Literary Selection published by Copper Canyon in 2011. Her first book, Orchidelirium, was selected by Naomi Shihab Nye for the Robert Dana Anhinga Prize for Poetry. Her work has appeared in The Paris ReviewTin HousePoetry, The New YorkerBoston ReviewThe Kenyon ReviewThe Wall Street JournalThe New York Times, and elsewhere. Her poems have been widely anthologized in places such as The Best American Erotic PoemsPlease Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation (Viking 2015), Not for Mothers Only, (Fence Books), Women’s Work: Modern Poets Writing in English, and translated into Mongolian, Romanian, Russian, and Greek.
She was educated at Stanford, Columbia, and Brown, where she was a Jacob K. Javits Fellow and received a Ph.D. in English and American Literature. For many years she co-directed the KGB Bar Monday Night Poetry Series and co-hosted the video interview.
Linda Kleinbub is a mentor at Girls Write Now, an organization that works with at-risk high school girls who have a passion for writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Observer, Our Town – Downtown, Statement of Record, Short, Fast and Deadly and The Best American Poetry Blog.  Her poem “Like that of the Purple Orchid in My Garden” will appear in the forthcoming book Grabbing the Apple: An Anthology of New York Women Poets. She is also a painter and photographer.