Tonight I have a wonderful professional opportunity. I will be one of twelve poets (yes, on occasion I write poetry, too) reading at Minneapolis Central Library as part of the city’s Pride Week. The readings will be from two books: Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets on the Midwestern Experience and When We Become Weavers: Queer Female Poets on the Midwestern Experience. [I have absolutely no clue why it’s not letting me link the full title there–must be a bug.] I have six poems in the former book and will be reading two.
Now, it is a very funny story how I ended up in this anthology. This time last year, I was in Introduction to Creative Writing, taught by G.E. Patterson at Metropolitan State University. As is typical of many such classes, the course was broken down into three units: poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. I wanted to get done with the poetry unit as soon as possible because I did not like poetry, contemporary poetry in particular. I thought contemporary poetry was sloppy, no structure, no reason to it. Lines were broken randomly, and all the classical features I had been taught in high school were tossed to the wind. Besides, I think like every high schooler, I didn’t think that damn wheelbarrow meant anything.
But Mr. Patterson opened my eyes to poetry. Seemingly random breaks were used to emphasize words and to create new meaning. A poem was not meant to tell a story, but to capture a moment. A poem must be read multiple times before you can catch all of its meaning and intention. And, of course, he had me writing poetry that fit this new paradigm.
At about the end of the poetry unit, I went to the launch party of couplets for a shrinking world, a poetry collection by my friend John Medeiros. The party was to open with a reading, and as is typical of everything in the creative world, it was getting a late start. So, being an extrovert who was there by myself, I got to talking to strangers around me. Behind me was a gentleman named Raymond Luczak, who, upon hearing that I was writing poetry, said, “Well, I thought I knew every gay poet in the Twin Cities, but I guess I didn’t. Listen, I’m publishing an anthology of poetry from queer male poets. The deadline for submission was two weeks ago. But, if you can submit to me eight poems germane to the Midwestern experience within 24 hours, and they’re good, then you’re in. I’ll publish six, but I want eight to pick from.”
I’m not one to pass up opportunities like that, so I agreed, and after the festivities, headed home and pored over my poetry–all of which at this point was school assignments. I figured out what might fit the theme, and came up only with five poems. It was getting late. I went to bed, thinking I could write poetry better after a good night’s sleep, with a fresh mind. (To this day, I prefer to write in the morning.)
The next morning, I looked through some of my prose work and found a piece that could be reworked into a poem. After I rewrote that piece, I pulled two more poems out of thin air. I e-mailed the poems to Raymond with about five hours to spare.
He contacted me straightaway, and said that he liked the work, but that one piece needed to be tightened, and that another was poorly expressed and came off unintentionally racist. (When I do something unintentionally racist, I want to be called out for it so I can contemplate how I could have done things differently, and correct course in the future. The surest corrective of white privilege is humility.) So I tightened the first piece, and wrote yet another new poem to replace the accidentally offensive work, resubmitted, and got the okay.
And that is how I got my first publishing credit. I think there are some lessons in this story:
If you’re a writer, go to literary events as much as possible. It pays to keep your big yap open. Strangers are some of the coolest people–you never know who you’re talking to. Write enough so that you have a healthy backlog of material–you never know when some finished work will come in handy. Pressure can produce creativity. You don’t have a say about how something should affect a group you don’t belong to–to believe otherwise is a cornerstone of privilege. Keep your eyes open: opportunity can pop up in the strangest places. And to have strangers read your work is one of the most awesome and humbling things in the world.
Oh, yeah, if you’re reading this and live in the Twin Cities area, consider dropping by for the reading this evening:
Gay Pride: Poetry Reading
Minneapolis Central Library
Pohlad Hall, 300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN, 55401
Tuesday, June 25, 7–9 p.m.
Listen to local GLBTQ authors who contributed poems on the Midwestern experience in two Squares & Rebels anthologies: “When We Become Weavers” edited by Kate Lynn Hibbard and “Among the Leaves” edited by Raymond Luczak.
This project is funded with money from Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.
Presented in partnership with Queer Voices Reading Series of Intermedia Arts.
[Despite what the library website says, registration isn’t necessary.]
As I have made a decision about what I’m going to focus on in grad school, it means that I’ve had to make a radical shift in my writing, from spending most of my time writing poetry to focusing on creative nonfiction. Interestingly, this doesn’t change what I’m writing. Most of the material for my poetry comes from my life and family stories. It certainly changes how I write, though.
I’m facing several challenges in this shift. One is how I edit. I’m used to having a half-dozen poems, each fifty to a hundred words long, and bouncing back and forth amongst them as I edit. This fits me; I have the attention span of a fruit fly. Working on prose requires more focus and discipline. I’m only working on one or two pieces a day, and spending a lot more time with each.
Another challenge is length. When I edit poetry, I try to whittle down what I write to the essence, to the point that I recently created a haiku completely by accident, after I had cut out over half the original material. Prose is a different beast. You can write short prose, and I gravitate to this. Most of my prose pieces are between 600 and 800 words. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself. However, the demands of publishing industry mean that I have to be flexible and know how to write in longer formats. Also, I know that some of the grad schools I want to apply to specify in their application directions that a nonfiction portfolio should consist of two pieces totaling 15 to 25 pages. This would total 5,000 to 8,300 words, according to my quick and possibly incorrect calculations. This is a far cry from 1,200 to 1,600 words.
I despaired of this at first. I didn’t think I could do it. Then, I just told myself that, if I have to do it, I can do it. I respond to instructions well; I was a good boy who “did what I was told.” What it really comes down to is, first, selection of material, and second, lots of practice. I’m not going to write a big novel right now, and I don’t need to. I can work up to bigger and bigger pieces.
Yesterday I started a draft that hit 1,000 pages and is probably only one-half to two-thirds done. It’s a good start.
I am trying to make this shift from mostly working on poetry to mostly working on prose memoir. I am doing this in recognition of the fact that I’ve decided what I want my focus in grad school to be, which means making sure I have a solid portfolio of prose by October or November, when I will start putting the finishing touches on my grad school application. I am not giving up on poetry. I will continue to write it and submit. But, as a focus for grad school, poetry doesn’t really fit my goals.
One struggle I am encountering is that, when I hop in the wayback machine to mine material for my writing, I keep going back to the same period in my life, ages 6 to about 10. There are some reasons why it makes for good material. That period of my life was both dramatic and bizarre, filled with mental snapshots of extreme sorrow and extreme violence. Basically, it provides the heightened action and raised stakes necessary for a good plot. In so much of my later life, the drama is much more deeply psychological. Nothing will kill a story faster than sitting inside a character’s head the whole time.
I certainly want to write about more than just my childhood, but I’m really going to have to push myself as a writer to raise the stakes and provide the action for later episodes in my life. But if I can’t push myself, I really have no business writing. So push I must.
This is the debate I struggle with right now: do I focus on poetry or creative nonfiction? Virtually all graduate programs require their students to pick a specialization. Usually, the choice is fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction. (Some programs will include playwriting and/or screenwriting in the mix, and some programs are only fiction and poetry.) I have learnt that, despite my desires otherwise, my talent is not in writing fiction. I am good at inventing worlds but not good at getting anything to happen in them.
As far as creative nonfiction goes, one of my instructors–the only one who has seen me write in several genres–believes that my creative nonfiction is strongest, memoir in particular. The fact that my life has just been weird works to my advantage in terms of having material to work with. I am also learning this semester that I do very well at writing literary critique, so I’m not just a one-trick pony when it comes to creative nonfiction.
But creative nonfiction does not come to me easily. At all. For two weeks I’ve been struggling to write an essay for this blog, and I haven’t got anywhere. It’s a time-sensitive issue, as it pertains to some recent current events, and I am very passionate about the subject. But it has been like pulling teeth getting anywhere with it. Every day, the relevance of what I have to say in the essay fades a little.
Poetry, on the other hand, comes much more easily. When I sit down for some writing time, the first thing I work on is poetry, and it’s what I spend the most time on. I like how the boundaries of poetry are loose and free. I like that I get to play with the way the words feel in the mouth. I like that I can whittle a story down to its essence–all the way down to a haiku if necessary. It is also all I have managed to get published to date, and people tell me that, out of what I write, it is what elicits the most powerful reaction.
The trouble with poetry, though, is that its audience is absolutely tiny. And I do not write just for myself. I do not write because I enjoy it–though that is a wonderful by-product. As unpopular as it is to say in the writing world, I write because I have something that needs to be said. If someone else said what I have to say, the value would be the same. This idea may not be obvious in everything I write, but to date I’ve only told the thousandth part of all I need to say, and I hope that the message of all I have to say will be understood as the sum of all I write, rather than just bits in isolation. Each bit I write is like a premise in a very long philosophical argument. And I write because it behooves me to contribute to society in the best way I can. The best thing I can do is to write. To have the biggest impact possible, to me, is to have as many people reading as possible. I have trouble seeing how that is possible with poetry.
I have a few months yet before I have to submit my choice to the schools I am applying to. And I will have some classes between now and then in which I might encounter some breakthrough in my writing–heck, maybe even with fiction. And if I get into my first choice of school, I won’t even have to choose a focus. (Yeah, I’ve made great strides with my choice of grad schools and my list is more or less set.) And, of course, I can always write whatever I want–I will just have two or three years where I’m focusing more one genre. Perhaps bearing that in mind will take some of the pressure off. However, my application will have to have my best writing, and I will have to decide which genre is my best writing, maybe.
It will all come together. I just get impatient.
So, I do not have the promised essay. I already said that it was proving unwieldy. I’m also finding that my writing process is not conducive to a steady blogging habit (never mind that I do not have home internet access.) If I want to post something more than an update, and I want to revise it a few times over to be good enough before I make it available for human consumption, my practise is not amenable to the internet. Of course, one of the great problems with internet culture is that we value speed over accuracy, clarity, or excellence.
I am also discovering other, more disturbing things about my writing. By which I mean that I am finding I really enjoy writing poetry. I call it “disturbing” half-jokingly. Before the summer began, I vowed to never write poetry except under duress (or a professor’s assignment, which can be kind of the same thing.) But I got a hold of a good instructor who overturned the reasons that I didn’t like poetry: that much contemporary was sloppy and vague, where I value rigour, clarity, and accuracy. My misconceptions I blame on high school, the last time I had formal instruction in poetry. But I realise now that a) a high-school teacher is often forced to make compromises in order to make poetry palatable to students who Will Not Like It; b) there is only so much a teacher can teach when confined to teaching a single “unit” on poetry; and c) the average high-schooler is not ready for the more intricate nuances of contemporary poetry.
There is of course a more serious reason why I’m concerned that I am finding my greatest writing faculty to be in poetry. As someone who considers his message more important than the messenger, I worry that I will be expressing that message in the medium that receives the least care or attention in our culture, not to mention the fact that I somehow have to feed myself.
But what can I do? I soldier on. I keep cranking out poetry. And I focus on this semester–I am only a writing undergraduate. I will be taking a class this semester called “1000 Words or Less” for the express purpose of helping me to become a better online writer. The aforementioned essay series will be published here, but on my terms and in my time. It’s the only way I can do a blog.
I have often said that one of my weak points is self-promotion. Well, let me fix that here.
My poetry was recently admitted for publication in a new anthology called Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets on the Midwestern Experience. This is my first official publishing credit, and I am proud, humbled, and excited, all at once. If you are interested in purchasing the book, you can do so here. The book will be released October 1, 2012, and pre-orders currently include free shipping (through September 30) . Plans are also underway for a Kindle edition. Having read an advance copy, I can attest that I’m in there with some excellent poets.
I finally have a functioning laptop once again, thanks to the miracle of student loans. I’m discovering, though, that one of the obstacles to advancing this blog (and a lot of what I’m doing these days) is home internet. (I used to rely on some anonymous person’s random signal, which is no more.) I’m discovering that I have a LOT of hoops to jump through before I can line this up, which is unfortunate. I have my first publishing credit–hooray–and, since this blog is publicised within the anthology (I will write more about this later), I know there is at least a halfway decent chance of getting some more readers. I just need to find a way to provide them with regular content. But I will figure out something, trust me.