Tag Archive: creative


Rejoicing in the Church of Poetry

(PHOTO: Steven Pinker)

I’m coming off a high after graduation last month. I finished the Stonecoast M.F.A. Low-Residency Program at the University of Southern Maine, a two-year journey I started for time to write and complete another manuscript to shop around.

It allowed me to expand my network, see Maine (a place I otherwise would not have visited), and to work with National Book Award Finalist Tim Seibles. While he was the hook, Stonecoast introduced me to other faculty members with invaluable insights: Marilyn Nelson, Joy Harjo, Scott WolvenAnnie Finch, David Anthony Durham, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Suzanne Strempek Shea, and Cait Johnson.

That high, in part, resulted from my last residency experience—where I spoke on a panel about third semester projects, introduced Tim Seibles before his reading and Q&A, conducted an hour-long seminar on collaborations, and got an amazing intro from Tim at the Graduating Student Reading. My wife, parents, and sister flew in, met the faculty, and fellow Stonecoasters.

I rode that high back to D.C., determined that nothing would kill it—not even Alexandra Petri’s Washington Post column “Is Poetry Dead?,” which dumped Poetry in a hospice. “Can a poem still change anything?” she wrote. “I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer.” That most people I encounter share Petri’s sentiment doesn’t surprise me. In fact, the anti-poetry comments bombard me: from my dad constantly asking how writers feed themselves, to “good for you” responses after people hear I’m a published poet, to the forced smile my wife’s sorority sister gave me when she found out what an M.F.A. (Masters of Fine Arts) was and what I studied.

I shook my head after a poetry buddy told me about an unsuccessful spoken word artist who recently said, “I don’t do that poetry shit anymore.” When the anti-poets spew their rhetoric, I’m grateful for this excerpt of Donald Hall’s 1989 essay, “Death to the Death of Poetry”:

After college many English majors stop reading contemporary poetry. Why not? They become involved in journalism or scholarship, essay writing or editing, brokerage or social work; they backslide from the undergraduate Church of Poetry. Years later, glancing belatedly at the poetic scene, they tell us that poetry is dead. They left poetry; therefore they blame poetry for leaving them. Really, they lament their own aging. Don’t we all? But some of us do not blame the current poets.

The Church of Poetry ain’t short on hallelujahs—not when poetry’s still read at weddings and funerals, not when people turn to poets or attempt to write their own verse on Valentine’s Day or anytime they declare their love for someone special. Could it be what Cait Johnson once said, that “poetry is a shortcut to empathy,” and that “poetry gets at the soul faster”?

My soul sambaed the evening I watched a couple wait for a table at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets in D.C. Attempting to woo his wife, the husband pulled a random poetry book off the shelf, an action prompted by his wife’s question some time before: “Why don’t you read me poetry?”

After reading a few poems aloud, he said, “This is really good.” He bought the book, then, hearing the author was present, asked the poet to pose with him for a photo. When the host called their name, the husband shook the poet’s hand and said that book will help their marriage.

(PHOTO: DCCWW) Students in the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop’s After-School Writing Club.

The gospel doesn’t stop there. I’d love to take Alexandra Petri to Hart Middle School in D.C.’s most neglected community (the Congress Heights neighborhood in the city’s southeast quadrant). Every week, she’d see kids, who thought they didn’t like poetry, laughing as they scribbled their raps.

She’d see a 7th grader sweat each line of his poem about going to visit his dad’s grave that day after school. She’d see an 8th grader writing about her dual heritages (a Jamaican dad and Panamanian mom).

If after all that, Petri said, “That’s nice, but shouldn’t they be doing something more practical,” I’d turn her attention to a 2007 interview, where Bill Moyers asked poet Martín Espada the same thing. “Well, for me, poetry is practical,” Espada said. “Poetry will help them survive to the extent that poetry helps them maintain their dignity, helps them maintain their sense of self respect. They will be better suited to defend themselves in the world. And so I think it– poetry makes that practical contribution.”

I’d love to take Petri to Duke Ellington School of the Arts on the well-to-do side of town, where she’d see  a 10th grader using poetry to deal with her mother’s passing last year. I wonder how she’d feel about her thesis after watching a classroom of students fired up after reading a poem about the ill-treatment of a hit and run victim.

I wish she could hear those 10th graders calling America on her hypocrisies before writing their own poems in the hit and run victim’s voice—addressing the drivers who honked their horns, the detectives who swapped jokes above her, or the shaken witness who stole the crime scene spotlight. I’d turn to Petri and–imitating Espada’s voice–say, “You just saw poetry make ‘…the abstract concrete…the general specific and particular.'”

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

I’d recommend the Post columnist shadow poet Patricia Smith on one of her school visits through Chicago. I’d like to see Petri’s reaction when Nicole asks Smith to help her remember her mother she lost to drug addiction.

I’d send Petri to Durham, NC, where Dr. Randall Horton brings poetry to a halfway house where he was once a resident. I could imagine Petri speechless, watching those men and women count haiku syllables on their fingers. She might even yell “Damn!” when a guy’s poem reminisces about a fine woman’s sundress that was “ghetto dandelion yellow.”

It’s obvious Alexandra Petri’s out of the loop. “The problem with her column is simple. It’s breathtakingly uninformed,” DC poet Joseph Ross wrote in a blog post, which listed a literary institution and contemporary local poets. Ross even offered to show Petri other places where Poetry lives in D.C. “Alexandra, let me take you to a poetry reading,” he wrote. “Let me introduce you to the poetry world in Washington, D.C., that I know. Maybe I’ll even give you a poetry book.”

And that’s nice, considering what every poet wanted to give Petri. Her column wasn’t just “breathtakingly uninformed”; it was offensive. The poets expressed this through the cyber beat down they gave Petri. I’m talking about angry comments posted to her column, an open letter with a reading list, and “irate tweets calling me ‘pretty [expletiving] stupid,’” Petri recalled in a follow-up column, retracting her initial thesis.

But a few thrown stones don’t stop the Church of Poetry from rejoicing, which brings me back to my high and my M.F.A. degree. I could go into what poetry did for me, but I’ve done that enough (plus, it’s on my “About” page). For those who don’t know, this Poetry Church is so funky the gospel wafts like cannabis clouds in a hotboxed car. We welcome nonbelievers to catch contact highs. There’s always room in the cipher.

I’ve been BOMBed!

(PHOTO: Courtesy) TIm!

Bomb Magazine posted the full interview I conducted with National Book Award Finalist Tim Seibles, who I also profiled in an earlier post.  Here’s an excerpt from the intro:

Tim Seibles is among the rare literary talents whose work is alive on and off the page. In fact, he’s out of this world. If Tim was an X-Man, he would be Iceman. Contemporary American Poetry would be the Westchester mansion where he hones his skill and powers to defend humanity.

Understanding that cold is slang for hip and fresh, Tim is one of the coldest poets publishing today. When I first read his work in 2004, it was clear what made him so cold. In his poem, “For Brothers Everywhere” (from his second collection Hurdy-Gurdy), Tim compared the streetballers to “ . . . muscular saxophones/ body-boppin better than jazz.”

Every poem I’ve written since have been failed attempts at trying to master Tim’s cool. “This is not a poetry of a highfalutin violin nor the somber cello,” Sandra Cisneros wrote in the blurb for Hurdy-Gurdy, “but a melody you heard somewhere that followed you home.” His poems are slick as the ice slides the Iceman glides over at high speeds.

Read the full interview by clicking here.

Fundraiser for the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop

(PHOTO: DC Creative Writing Workshop)

Those who can’t make this event, or who live out of the area, can support our work by visiting our donations page here.

Join us Sept. 20 at the 5th and K streets Busboys and Poets for a fundraiser benefit to support the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop.

For 12 years, the Workshop’s used arts education to transform the lives of kids living in D.C.’s Congress Heights neighborhood, an often forgotten part of the city.

With a fundraising goal of $50,000, we need everyone’s help. Please spread the word!

Come out and support the work of the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop that’s resulted in thousands of students attending readings, plays and other literary events, winning dozens of writing awards, and enjoying a wealth of new experiences not otherwise available to young people in Ward 8.

Many of the Workshop’s graduates have gone on to study at New York University, George Washington University, Pennsylvania State University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, to name a few. One former student went to Harvard. Another, who graduated from George Mason University and continued his studies at Loyola University Law School, earned a paid summer internship at a Minneapolis law firm. Several former writing club members have graduate degrees or are working on them.

(Visit our website for additional information. Read why 2012 was the best year ever for the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop. You can also keep up with what’s going on with the Workshop by visiting our Facebook page or reading our blog.)

(PHOTO: DC Creative Writing Club)

Come out Sept. 20 and meet the staff while enjoying delicious finger foods, a reading by our students, and a screening of one of our films. There’s no cover. Come ready to give! If we reach our fundraising goal, all staff members will shave their heads!

Donation amounts and giveaways are as follows:

$50+ will receive an issue of hArtworks!, the nation’s only inner-city public middle school literary magazine. It is written and edited by students in the after-school writing club at Charles Hart Middle School.

$100+ get the latest issue of hArtworks! and a free journal

$250+ get a DVD of one of our movies, the latest issue of hArtworks! and a free journal

$500+ get all three DVDs of our movies, three issues of hArtworks! and a free journal

Reminders will go out as the date gets closer. Tell a friend! Let’s pack the 5th and K streets Busboys and Poet’s Cullen Room Thursday, Sept. 20.

See you there!

(Marlene Lillian Photography)

According to the Library of Congress’s website:

The Poet and the Poem is an ongoing series of live poetry interviews at the Library of Congress with distinguished artists. Webcasts are now available of recent events, including the appearances of two U.S. Poets Laureate and several Witter Bynner fellows. Distinguishing features of the show are the poets’ discussions with host Grace Cavalieri about their craft and sources of inspiration. The series is sponsored by the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry and the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C.

I really appreciate Grace Cavalieri having me on this show! Check out the recording here.

The Residency and Immersion

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Jaed Coffin grew up in Maine and has worked as a boxer and lobsterman before becoming a writer and Stonecoast MFA faculty member.

Jaed Coffin’s goal is to aim for the big idea when he’s working on a writing project, often immersing himself in his subjects’ worlds. And he didn’t expect anything less from his students, who he urged yesterday to do their subjects’ stories justice by giving readers the big picture.

There was a lot to take away from Coffin’s presentation YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS SH*T UP!: An Introduction to Immersion/Literary/Longform Journalism. Yesterday was also the second day of the Stonecoast MFA summer residency, which started with a tour of the Stone House for first semester students by journalist and author Sam Smith, who spent his childhood summers living in the Casco Bay waterfront estate.

I came back this year as a fourth semester student, who for the last six months worked on my third semester project (a creative collaboration with a comic strip artist that produced a comic book) while starting a new job and promoting my debut poetry collection in addition to getting married.

And I’m still charged from Friday’s Flash Faculty Reading, where Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of the novel WENCH, peeled our wigs back with a short story she hadn’t published yet. The award-winning writer, who’s also a former University of California postdoctoral fellow and graduate of Harvard, is guest faculty at this residency. I enjoyed talking to Perkins-Valdez about married life (she’s going on nine years) and appreciated her insights on parenting.

Just as priceless was my first day in the cross genre workshop Explorations in Masculinity, co-facilitated by David Anthony Durham and Jaed Coffin. What’s interesting is there are only two guys in this workshop of seven students. Yesterday, we started our workshop in a room at the Stone House, where we have all our workshops and presentations.

This grand estate is striking with its multiple stone porches and fireplaces. The beautiful stained glass, wood, and tile work are as breathtaking as the ocean view from each room. On the extensive grounds of the Stone House are rocky pathways to harbor vistas, nationally renowned heather gardens, and historically organic farmland.

I was glad that Durham and Coffin took the workshop to the deck behind the house, where our conversations flowed from different male archetypes presented in Twilight and Harry Potter, to the dominant-submissive theme in contemporary literature. We also talked about so-called traditional male types that over-populated action flicks. Coffin asked us if those guys even existed.

(PHOTO: Selectism) Gay Talese, author and pioneer of literary journalism.

That question about the truth was a great lead  up to Coffin’s presentation on literary journalism, or what he called narrative nonfiction. “To me, it’s the least pretentious term,” he said. It’s also a form of long journalism pioneered by writer Gay Talese, who wrote the most memorable profile of Frank Sinatra for Esquire more than four decades ago.

As the story goes, Talese came to  Los Angeles to profile Sinatra. “The legendary singer was approaching fifty, under the weather, out of sorts, and unwilling to be interviewed,” according to Esquire’s editorial note. “So Talese remained in L.A., hoping Sinatra might recover and reconsider, and he began talking to many of the people around Sinatra—his friends, his associates, his family, his countless hangers-on—and observing the man himself whenever he could.” This resulted in the 11,000-word article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” that Esquire published April 1966.

Coffin used the profile as a great example of  the three-part zoom functions used by literary journalists. At 1X (wide frame): the writer captures the subject’s environment, atmosphere, regionalism, culture, subculture, race, identity, and class. The writer zooms in to 2X (narrow focus), where they capture the subject’s home, community, family, past, genealogy, origins and lore. Then, at 3X (narrower focus), the writer zooms directly on the subject. At this focal point, the writer  captures the subject’s eyes, ears, speech, charms, patterns of behavior, clothing, and so on.

Talese does that throughout his profile of Sinatra. That long-form of journalism is defined by an Esquire editor as “a work of rigorously faithful fact enlivened with the kind of vivid storytelling that had previously been reserved for fiction.”

That struck a chord with Coffin, who at 18, knew he wanted to be a writer. At first, he tried his hand at fiction. “The first novel I tried to write [then] I got 25 pages into it and lost myself,” said the Stonecoast instructor, whose passion followed him from undergrad at New England’s Middlebury College through graduation, when he moved back home with his mom and took a job as a lobsterman while he worked on his writing. “I kept using reality as an amplified spring-board,” he said, to do the type of writing he wanted.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) A 21-year-old Jaed Coffin spent a summer in a Buddhist monastery.

Then the literary inertia pulled him to nonfiction when writing the truth became beneficial. “Most of the time truth is better than fiction,” Coffin said. “The social aspect of nonfiction is why I’m in the game. Nonfiction has this beautiful social element. You get to be out in the world.”

Coffin’s explorations took him from Brunswick, Maine, to his mother’s native village in Thailand, where he became a Buddhist monk after his junior year at Middlebury College.

He captured that experience in his memoir A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants (Da Capo/Perseus), which is a tale of displacement, ethnic identity, and cultural belonging. According to the book jacket, it’s also a record of Coffin’s “time at the temple that rain season–receiving alms in the streets in saffron robes; bathing in the canals; learning to meditate in a mountaintop hut; and falling in love with Lek, a beautiful Thai woman who comes to represent the life he can have if he stays.”

The other benefits of writing nonfiction are just as alluring. “You make a lot of money and get to hang out with people,” Coffin said. “You also get to use every skill that fiction writers and poets use.” He’s currently working those skills in Roughhouse Friday (Riverhead/Penguin), his forthcoming book about the year he fought as the middleweight champion of a barroom boxing show in Juneau, Alaska.

Though he loves the adventure, Coffin advised it’s not a prerequisite to writing narrative nonfiction. “Do not feel like, because you have a domestic life, you cannot do literary journalism,” he said. “Reality, on its own terms, is strange and full of conflict. You just have to be patient enough to dig up the conflict.”

National Poetry Month!

(PHOTO: Melanie Taub/NPR)

What’s exciting about National Poetry Month is this series NPR is doing called Muses and Metaphors. Last month, NPR’s Producer Argin Hutchins and Senior Producer Davar Ardalan reached out to the DC Creative Writing Workshop to participate in this month’s Muses and Metaphors.

I tweeted lines from poems written by two of the Workshop’s writing club members, TyJuan Hogan and Daisha Wilson. I also tweeted, at the request of Argin and Davar, lines from my poem. Argin came through and recorded us reading our tweets.

I’m grateful to NPR for reaching out the DC Creative Writing Workshop and allowing our students to shine for National Poetry Month! You can hear me, TyJuan, and Daisha reading our tweets here! You can also visit us on Facebook here.

(PHOTO: Katherine Frey / TWP. Each year, the DC Creative Workshop has the highest number of students who win the city-wide poetry competitions.

If you’ve read my “About” page, then you know I’m the senior program director for the DC Creative Writing Workshop, a wonderful nonprofit based in DC’s Congress Heights community.

On Nov. 9, we will be participating in Give to the Max Day: Greater Washington, a massive one-day regional online fundraiser to support local programs.

Our programs, started in 1995, continues to transform the lives of kids in the Congress Heights neighborhood, an often ignored part of the city. According to recent data from the Social Justice Center at Georgetown University, Ward 8, which encompasses Congress Heights, has educational hurdles.

For starters, among 16-19 year-olds, the high school dropout rate was 16 percent, “substantially higher than the district average of 10.1 percent.” The center also found that “one third (34 percent) of Ward 8’s population over 25 did not have a high school diploma, which was about average for the District.” Additionally, 7 percent of residents don’t even have a 9th grade education, and the Median Annual Income is $32,348, according to recent statistics.

A recent success story is Kiana Murphy, who despite those hurdles, overcame a lot to make it to her first semester at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this fall. Kiana’s story started when she joined the DC Creative Writing Workshop’s after-school writing club in 2005. “Writing Club is a true, life-changing experience. It helped me to express feelings so powerful that they scare even me sometimes,” according to Kiana’s essay on her experiences with the DC Creative Writing Workshop.

In writing club, Kiana and her peers read and gave critical responses to works of writers from various cultures and periods. She wrote her own poems while mastering literary devices and learning new vocabulary. “I am grateful that Writing Club has become such an important part of my life,” Kiana writes.

(PHOTO: DC Creative Writing Workshop) Kiana was the valedictorian at Friendship Collegiate Academy's high school graduation this year.

In 2007, Kiana was among the seven students hired through the Workshop’s youth employment program, helping students resist the lure of the streets.

As a young-writer-in-residence, she assisted the writers-in-residence by providing extra support for classroom management and helping with other administrative duties. “I have had such a great time in this program—new people, new places, and a whole new life of words, stanzas, and emotions,” writes Kiana, who went on to win the Parkmont Poetry Contest.

She was also part of the Workshop’s drama club, which creates original adaptations of classical plays by reading the texts and rewriting them line by line before the Workshop brings in a professional director to help them rehearse and perform their works on a stage for the community.

During her time in the writing club, Kiana excelled in her classes to become the valedictorian at Hart and again at her high school, Friendship Collegiate Academy.

Prior to graduating, Kiana was among five students from her high school to win a Posse Scholarship, which covers the cost of books, tuition, and her room and board at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The scholarship’s process—that entailed her being nominated by the school dean and sitting through three intense interviews with Posse reps—was a grueling one.

Kiana, who sought and received her Posse Scholarship letter of recommendation from the Workshop, was up against more than 1,000 other DC students for the scholarship. But, like the hurdles in her community, she overcame the process because she had to. “This is an opportunity to get out of DC and be in a different atmosphere,” she said, during a Dec. 23, 2010, interview on FOX 5 News.

Her goals? “I’m looking at going into Psychology and English, specifically Clinical Psychology,” she told Fox 5 News. “I want to help others because growing up in my neighborhood I was exposed to a lot of things.”

Earlier this year, a gunman shot and killed Raheem Jackson, a 16-year-old student at Woodson High, just outside of Kiana’s apartment in the 1300 block of Congress Street. There have been six shootings on Kiana’s block so far this year, three of them fatal. But, like everything else, she overcame those situations and is looking forward to a bright future.

(IMAGE: Courtesy)

If you ask, Kiana’ll tell you the DC Creative Writing Workshop kept her from being a negative statistic. “It’s made me stronger in another way, too. I am now able to speak out loud and say what I’m thinking without any fear,” writes the young woman, who’s secure in being her own person with her own opinions.

“I would also like to thank my writing instructors for helping me to find out who I am, figure out my goals, and plan my route to the future,” Kiana continued. “Now I know why I’m here: to strive for the best, succeed in life, and do remarkable things to change the world.”

With all that we’ve been able to provide for Kiana and others like her, we’ve been fortunate enough to stay afloat during the economic crisis. But we’re not clear of these tough times and the effects. With heavy emphasis on testing and little support for the arts, our funding is decreasing.

Additionally, the fewer arts opportunities in Congress Heights schools make it clear our services are more vital than ever. Our resources are stretched thin.

We’re counting on you to help us generate donations for the Give to the Max Day. Our goal is to raise as much money as possible and gain as many supporters as possible. If we make it to the Top 44 for most unique donors, we could win up to $10,000 in awards.

But we need your help with these three things:

- mark your calendar for Nov. 9th and add this link from our fundraising page.

- like us on facebook, link to us on your blog, and help generate buzz.

- forward this email to your friends, family, and anyone who might be interested in supporting literary arts access for underserved kids. Add a personal message about why our cause means something to you.

With your help, we can continue to provide opportunities for others like Kiana. Let’s make this our biggest individual donation day ever! Thank you for your support.

The Residency II

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Jaed Coffin

Jaed Coffin drew a diagonal line on an easel pad and called it the spine. That’s the idea of identity, he told a room of writers at a presentation Friday. Coffin drew a wavy line that curved along the diagonal one, and called it the narrative.

Then he shaded in dots where the lines intersected. “Every time your narrative crosses the spine is a moment your reader is committed to your story,” Coffin said during his presentation The Indecent Proposal: How to Sell a Book in Fifty Pages.

His session was among the 18 of 22 Faculty Presentations that have already occurred since the Stonecoast MFA summer residency started. I’m seven days into it.

Earlier that day, we had our second poetry workshop with Joy Harjo, who’s among the faculty for this half of the residency.

The first day was amazing. Harjo gave us an in-class writing assignment to either talk to or riff off our obsessions, the thing that comes up a lot in our poems. My obsession was the city. When I read my list of things I’m drawn to in urban settings, Harjo noted that everything I listed were sounds.

On our second day with her, each person brought in a poem from a poet we considered to be our poetry ancestor. I brought in Sonia Sanchez’s poem “Ballad”. We went around the table, invoking the voices of our ancestors.

Harjo’s fascinated by dreams and what they tell us. “The dreams have been my teachers since before I was born,” she told us. “There’s a lot of material in them.” She suggested that, if we really wanted to get intense with our dreams, then we should wake ourselves up around 3 a.m. to record them.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Joy Harjo

“A poem is an energetic system,” she said. “It’s very important, when we’re working on a poem, to pay attention to our dreams…that’s our library in a sense.”

That’s how we start every workshop session, which results in Harjo’s wise words echoing in my head throughout the day. When a workshop member asked what if you don’t dream, Harjo suggested taking a natural supplement. “If you’re not having dreams,” the instructor said, “vitamin B will trigger them.”

And that’s how it’s been these seven days—writers having deep discussions before the dew dries on the grass. So you can see how there’s so much to take in. Add both the faculty and graduating student presentations, and I’m convinced I need a second head to hold everything I’ve learned this residency.

After staring at the schedule, I settled on Jaed Coffin’s presentation on preparing an effective book proposal that delivers and sells the idea, that shows an agent/editor the writer understands his/her story, and gets them paid. According to Coffin, a pitch should have three parts: an A, B and C.

The “A” is the writer’s basic story. “In memoir, I think of this as your most raw experience,” Coffin said. On what writer’s should consider, he said, “It’s the elemental experience you triumphed [or] overcame.”

The “B” is your story’s story, which puts the situation/experience in context. “Often times, this larger story that deals with your experience deals with place, setting, era, epoch, region and issue,” Coffin said.

Then there’s “C”, the transcendental story. According to the instructor, it’s the synthetic effect of both “A” and “B”. “This,” he said, “is where the conflict and tension emerges.”

(COVER ART: De Capo Press)

Using his own autobiographic books—A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants and Roughhouse Friday—Coffin filled in the template with his experiences.

With A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants, the “A” (basic story) was the biracial American kid becomes a monk. “A simple, fundamental experience,” the instructor said. “We all have narratives with which we tell our lives.” On what writers should consider, Coffin added, “What story am I trying to tell about my character, that fundamental nugget.”

The “B” (context of situation/experience) is that his story happens in his mom’s Thai village. “There’s that one thing that tweaks the story to where they’ll be conflict,” the instructor said.

Then there’s “C” (transcendental story): the “fact I was a monk in my mom’s village complicates our idea of what it means to be American,” Coffin said.

The process was the same for Roughhouse Friday. The “A”: there’s a bar in Juneau where guys fight. “There’s something kind of charismatic about bar fights,” the instructor said. “No one looks away from a bar fight.”

The “B”: most of the guys in the bar are of Tlingit and Haida ethnicity. “Suddenly,” Coffin said, “the fight begs the question, Why?

The “C” answers that question: the guys fight because of their ethnic identity and their cultural history. This also adds to the discussion on what it means to be American. “Somehow the merging of my experience and identity come to this larger thing,” Coffin said. Without that “larger thing,” the instructor noted, the book doesn’t have staying power. “If you just want to talk about your experience, that’s fine,” Coffin said. “But I don’t think your book will last.”

Another thing that guarantees staying power is what’s called “the spine,” which Coffin defined with an excerpt from an email his editor sent him. “It’s the thing that you keep coming back to,” writes Rebecca Saletan, of Riverhead Books. “Make a lot of digressions as long as you keep coming back to the spine.”

(COVER ART: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Coffin elaborated. “No narrative is a straight line. Good books tend to meander,” he said. “Good writers always have a good sense of the spine. That’s what keeps the reader engaged.”

Among Coffin’s examples of text with “a good sense of the spine” is Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which is chronicles the struggles of the Lees, a Hmong family from Sainyabuli Province, Laos, and the misunderstandings that arise between their culture and the health care system in Merced, California.

What makes books like The Spirit Catches You successful is the “take away,” what Coffin noted makes the reader pass or recommend a book to someone else. The instructor added that most writers don’t know what the “take away” of their books are yet. “The take away is something you have to earn,” Coffin said. “I can sell a ‘C’”—the thing that’s constructed in the mind beforehand—“but I can’t sell a take away.”

When submitting a proposal to agents, the instructor noted, writers will need three things: an overview, chapter summary, and writing sample—a framework that goes against conventional wisdom, which required a longer list of items included in the proposal.

Coffin recounted a story about the mistake he made earlier in his writing career. He submitted a 140-page proposal that resembled a press kit, which included a market analysis. He advised both nonfiction and fiction writers against this. (While his presentation was for nonfiction students and the rules for other genres are slightly different, he noted that his framework also applies to fiction students.)

On bypassing conventional wisdom, Coffin said, “If you can hook an agent in five pages, to hell with a market analysis.” Chapter summaries should be no more than 15-page chapters, he noted. “Every chapter summary should have an event,” Coffin said. “A physical action should occur.”

And for nonfiction, he noted, a writing sample should be 25-65 pages. Coffin said, “No one wants to buy a 1,000-page manuscript from a no-name author.”

How To Write About Sex

(PHOTO: Alan King) Stonecoast faculty instructor Aaron Hamburger leads Tuesday’s discussion on writing about sex.

A roomful of writers laughed after Aaron Hamburger noted that nipples shouldn’t be compared to cherries, pencil erasers or Frankenstein’s neck bolts—at least not in literature. “Metaphors should be used to make things clear,” the Stonecoast faculty member said during his presentation. “But we’re all adults, here. I think we’re clear on what a penis and breasts look like.”

Hamburger’s presentation Let’s Talk About Sex: How To Use Eroticism Effectively in Writing was the Tuesday highlight.  I’m five days deep into a 10-day summer residency in the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program.

The first half of the residency culminated today with a dinner for poetry faculty and students at a local pub. Earlier today, my group had our last poetry workshop with Tim Seibles. (Next week, I’ll be in a different workshop group led by Joy Harjo.) I’ve knocked out all my required evaluations for the Graduating Student Presentations. Aaron Hamburger’s was the last of my required Faculty Presentations.

Writers packed the Casco Room of the Stone  House Tuesday afternoon to examine the work of authors depicting eroticism in original ways. Among Hamburger’s examples of works that transcended simply reporting the mechanics of sex was the title novella of Philip Roth’s short story collection Goodbye, Columbus.

The title story, which looks at the life of middle-class Jewish Americans, is from the perspective of Rutgers University grad Neil Klugman. While working a low-paying gig at the Newark Public Library, Neil meets and falls for Brenda Patimkin, a Radcliffe College student whose wealthy family lives in the affluent Short Hills.

Hamburger’s example is what happened after Neil agreed to hold Brenda’s glasses while she goes swimming:

She dove beautifully, and a moment later she was swimming back to the side of the pool, her head of short-clipped auburn hair held up, straight ahead of her, as though it were a rose on a long stem. She glided to the edge and then was beside me. “Thank you,” she said…She extended a hand for her glasses but did not put them on until she turned and headed away. I watched her move off. Her hands suddenly appeared behind her. She caught the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where  it belonged. My blood jumped. That night, before dinner, I called her.

(Artwork: Chris Andruskiewicz)

Hamburger noted the tension in Neil’s anticipation. “You want to do a striptease, which is what she [Brenda] did,” he advised his audience.

Not every character should like sex the same way, Hamburger noted, then cited a tender moment between a nameless Hungarian writer and an aging actress in Peter Nadas’s novel A Book of Memories:

I edged closer to her, and rather than objecting to this she helped me by slipping her arm under my shoulder, gently hugging me to herself, and simply to return the gesture I let my hand slide up her thigh, my fingers slip under her panties. And we lay there like this. Her burning face on my shoulder. We seemed to be lolling in some spacious, soft and slippery wetness where one doesn’t know how time passes but it’s of no importance anyway. With my arms I was rocking her body as if wanting to rock both of us to sleep.

Hamburger pointed to a masochistic sexual relationship between two strangers, Beth and The Man, who go away for the weekend in the short story, “A Romantic Weekend,” from Mary Gaitskill’s collection Bad Behavior:

She put her glass on the coffee table, crossed the floor and dropped to her knees between his legs. She threw her arms around his thighs. She nuzzled his groin with her nose. He tightened. She unzipped his pants. “Stop,” he said. “Wait.”…This was not what he had in mind, but to refuse would make him seem somehow less virile than she. Queasily, he stripped off her clothes and put their bodies in a viable position. He fastened his teeth on her breast and bit her. She made a surprised noise and her body stiffened. He bit her again, harder. She screamed. He wanted to draw blood. Her screams were short and stifled. He could tell that she was trying to like being bitten, but that she did not. He gnawed her breast. She screamed sharply. They screwed. They broke apart and regarded each other warily. She put her hand on his tentatively. He realized what had been disturbing him about her.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Victor LaValle

No matter the characters’ sexual preferences, Hamburger advised the crowd not to forget to include foreplay in their stories. Don’t make the mistake, he said, of jumping right to penetration. The instructor cited a moment between Rob, a male prostitute, and his customer in the short story, “slave,” from Victor LaValle’s collection Slapboxing with Jesus:

Rob eats pussy like a champ. He’s on awful knees that should have been turned in months ago; they are now numb. He should be getting ready for school; tenth grade is usually the age of football teams and part-time work. She says, —Don’t stop, through those teeth so white Rob was sure they were caps…—Don’t you fucking stop. She has soft skin everywhere and does nothing he might call work. This woman doesn’t have rough fingers like secretaries who must type and dial phones all their lives or lawyers who look tired and must win every argument; not even models who are so pretty, or pretend to be, that they would never have to pay for an ugly little kid to eat their pussies. Her legs and thighs are draped over his shoulders, her ass somewhere in that space between him and the bed; he wants to tell her that his shoulders hurt, but will he? No.

Watching some folks in the audience cringe at the details, Hamburger offered some perspective. “I’ve met Victor LaValle. He’s a total gentleman,” he said. “He’s not the type of guy to say, ‘Rob eats pussy like a champ.’” But the author, he noted, realized that the language was appropriate for the story. What the author did underscored the instructor’s message. Speaking of LaValle, Hamburger said, “He does his characters justice.”

The Residency

(PHOTO: Snowmonks) The 86 Ensemble (formerly the Snowmonks)

During yesterday’s presentation on music and improvisation, Gil Helmick and his band inspired the writers in the room to face their fears off the page. “I’ve actually watched my work change before my eyes while I’m performing,” he said. “Line breaks go. I’ll toss lines over my shoulder like they’re dead birds.”

Helmick’s presentation Poetry, Music, Improvisation, Synergies of the Subconscious is one of four faculty presentations I’m required to evaluate as a student.

I’m in my second semester of the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program, one of the nation’s leading low-residencies.

It’s a rigorous two-year graduate education in creative writing. Each semester kicks off with a ten-day residency at the historic Stone House. (Last residency, we stayed at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, ME. This time, we’re at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME.)

Helmick’s among the Stonecoast faculty members who, during the residency, lead workshop groups in creative nonfiction, fiction and popular fiction. Outside of the residency, faculty mentors give us one-on-one intensive instructions in our chosen genres. Last semester, I had the great Tim Seibles as my mentor, and was fortunate enough to get him again as a workshop leader for poetry.

As a Stonecoast student, I get to take electives in scriptwriting, translation, performance and cross-genre. We’re all required to do a third semester project and lead an hour-long presentation in our fourth semester. I’m excited about collaborating with a visual artist to do either a poetry comic book or a graphic novel in verse for my third semester project.

Yesterday was the fourth day of my residency that started with Tim and Patricia Smith scorching the Flash Faculty Readings that included Boman Desai, David Anthony Durham, Stonecoast Director Annie Finch, the Elizabeths (both Hand and Searle), the awesome and amazing Cait Johnson, and Michael Kimball.

(PHOTO: Alan King) Stonecoast faculty and students enjoy lunch outdoors.

During the residency, I’m also required to evaluate three graduating student presentations. My favorite so far is Karrie Waarala’s Creating the Common Languages Necessary to Make a Poetry Show a Success.

She presented on her Poetry Side Show, what she did as her third semester project. According to Waarala, it was an involved process that led to a successful multimedia project, where she incorporated video performances of poets/actors along with her stage presentation. This, she said, allowed her to keep the focus on her performance without having other actors with her on the stage.

“I feel funny calling this a one-woman show when other people were involved,” she said before wisely admitting, “You cannot do this alone.” She got help from a friend who built her a trick mirror. Others designed posters and websites to help her get the word out about her show.

The extent to which Waarala went to pull off her project was impressive. Her research included her reading, conducting interviews and traveling with a small ring circus. For her third semester project, she hired a sideshow barker, a fortune-teller, and a juggler who peddled a unicycle outside her show while tossing and catching flame batons.

But, perhaps, more risky than keeping several objects in the air simultaneously was Waarala quitting her job as a librarian to pursue her third semester project full-time. After hearing that, I thought of how my fiancée would kill me if I quit my job for a project.

Two nights prior, Kazim Ali brought the house down with his reading. Earlier that day, I learned about 10-minute plays in James Kelly’s and Elizabeth Searle’s faculty presentation, ‘Get Shorty’: One-Act Plays and Short Films as a ‘Way In’ to Scriptwriting.

(PHOTO: Alan King) Indigo Moor (fellow Stonecoast student) with Annie Finch (Stonecoast Director) and Alexandra Oliver (Stonecoast student).

The presentation involved everyone partnering up for a role-play exercise. One person played the scriptwriter pitching a story to the partner, who played the director. After five minutes, the roles reversed. Kelly and Searle kept us engaged by acting out a 10-minute play.

In that presentation, I learned a 10-minute play is 10 pages double-spaced. I learned about the Aristotelian unities, the rule of three characters (the third person disrupts the relationship between two people), and the mistakes beginning playwrights make.

“Beginning playwrights feel they have to explain a lot,” Kelly said. “They don’t trust their audience.”

Instead, he suggested using fewer stage directions. “Trust the director. This medium is collaborative,” Kelly said. “Your job is to step back from what you think is important.”

His message—“The fate of your work is tied to other people”—was echoed yesterday in Gil Helmick’s presentation on music and improvisation.

Helmick’s part of a multimedia performing arts crew known as The 86 Ensemble (formerly the Snowmonks), which blend spoken word, piano, and cello improvisations that’s attributed to what’s called “thoughtful, challenging and periodically disruptive juxtapositions of image, metaphor, meaning and sound.”

After The 86 Ensemble got down, the floor was open to students and faculty who either composed on the spot or brought something already written. Poet Anne Witty was brave enough to kick it off for all the poets, sci-fi and fiction writers who eventually worked up the courage to improvise our narratives.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Gil Helmick

We had church in that upstairs room of the Stone House.

Indigo Moor and Patricia Smith kept encouraging me to go up. When I told Indigo that I’d go if he went, the poet/playwright/fiction writer got up and performed the title poem from his debut collection of poems Taproot.

On my way to the mike, I thought of Helmick’s point on the important element of improvisation. “The key, in improvising with others, is to listen. It’s through listening that magic occurs,” he said. “It’s through listening the dueling happens.”

I listened and found my way into the duel with my poem “Hunger”. But the magic happened when folks, initially put off by getting up in front of their peers, cast their inhibitions aside to add their voices to the cipher.

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