My Night with the Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey

Way back when, before she was named Poet Laureate (yesterday), Natasha Trethewey was an equally accomplished, impressive poet who just happened to spend a day at Bloomsburg University (she was a writer-in-residence at a local university and was good friends with one of my creative writing professors, so it wasn’t a total coincidence).

I was lucky and honored enough to be asked to introduce her at her evening reading, a real treat because I had recently read her book, Native Guard, and it was the first book of poetry I had ever legitimately enjoyed (besides Ogden Nash, that is. I LOVE his poetry and I don’t care if everybody looks down their noses at Ogden Nash, I think he was a genius. I’m especially fond of his poem, “Song to be Sung by the Father of Infant Female Children“).

I don’t write poetry often (or well) and I rarely read poetry and I even more rarely enjoy it. It’s a personal taste thing. I really enjoy story and plot and characters; often, in my opinion, poetry forsakes these elements for structure, rhythm, and pretty words. But Natasha Tretheway has a story, an amazingly interesting and historically significant life story, and each poem is a fully fleshed out moment, muscled with meaning and feeling, helping you understand that history. Seriously, you have to read her bio before really appreciating her poems.

Not only that, but she was a good writing influence to be around. A lot of writers write a book and then someone likes it and it gets published; they don’t have much to offer new writers because their they were never required to be particularly attentive to their writing. That is their story. But Natasha Trethewey is completely dedicated to her craft and improving her craft. Everyone–even strictly prose writers, like me–learned something about how to improve their writing after she visited campus.

I went out to dinner with Ms. Trethewey and a chunk of the English department faculty before the reading and it was nerve wracking. Half because I was the only student there, and half because I didn’t think anything I had to say would be even mildly interesting to such an accomplished writer. But we had one of the best conversations–about race, color, and interpretation–that I still reflect upon. I’ve been fussing around with the idea of writing a short memoir about it. Someday.

Though my introductory speech is ever so slightly dated, I believe it’s appropriate to share it again. It fits as a “Congratulations on Being Named Poet Laureate” speech, don’t you think?

Natasha Trethewey received her bachelor’s from University of Georgia, her masters in English from Hollins University, and her MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts.  She is the author of three poetry collections—Domestic Work, Bellocq’s Ophelia, and Native Guard, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize—and a creative non-fiction book entitled Beyond Katrina: A Mediation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  We can look forward to her new collection of poetry, Thrall, which will be released in 2012.

Her work has appeared in several volumes of Best American Poetry and in journals such as Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, The Massachusetts Review, and The Southern Review.  She’s the recipient of the 2008 Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence, the 2008 Georgia Woman of the Year, the Bunting Fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. She is a Professor of English at Emory University where she holds the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry and is currently the poet-in-residence at Bucknell University.

But before all that success happened, Natasha Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi.  She admitted in an interview once that she felt it “impossible…not to return.”  The South has thus haunted her the same way her mother’s death, the “ghost of history,” and the untold stories of the Native Guard soldiers have haunted her and it is evident in her writing.  When I read Native Guard I was struck by the language heavy with graveyard metaphors and similes.  A seaport, for example, transforms into a graveyard for sunken river boats.  Death served as the delicate skeleton structure for each poem.  Throughout the book, Trethewey cannot escape because every dream, every memory, every experience is haunted.  Even tourist visits to Vicksburg, Virginia, transform into a macabre dance of “the living com[ing] to mingle with the dead.”

In another interview, Trethewey described an incident. It included:

  • a hotel.
  • an air conditioner
  • a maintenance man
  • and a recited poem.

Ever since then, Trethewey has liked to think that lots of people carry poetry around, handy, in their back pockets the way that man did. I know that her poetry certainly haunts me, and I assume you’re all here tonight because it haunts you too. Tonight, we carry her poetry.

So, please welcome Natasha Trethewey.

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The Pros and Cons to NaNoWriMo

During the month of November, I pretty much secluded myself away from the writing world.  I didn’t read any blogs and I didn’t submit any new stories.  I was so busy trying to bust out my NaNo word count every day that I actually forgot I was waiting to hear back from several publications.  The month sped by.

This was both a curse and a blessing.

The Curse:  I got two rejection letters during the month which were extremely unhelpful discouragement.  One was from Cicada–FINALLY! I thought they had lost my submission ages ago–and the other was from New South.**  Both were form letters, but one was actually a forwarded rejection which just seemed to increase the impersonal nature of it all  [deep sigh of melodramatic depression]

The Blessing:  The month went by so fast that I didn’t even have time to count the seconds until I hear back about some contests I entered a while back.  I find out about the Tiny Texas House contest as soon as this Friday (cross your fingers!) and about the Writer’s Digest Young Adult Fiction Competition by December 31st.  Woohoo!

I didn’t know this until I read this article, but apparently the writing world is split into two camps concerning NaNoWriMo: friends and foes.  I think most of the Cons on the Writer’s Relief’s list are rather silly, so I’ve composed my own Pros and Cons list:

Pros:

  1. You get a whole book written–with a beginning, middle, and end, and an entire cast of characters.
  2. You don’t have the luxury to procrastinate and only write and rewrite and then rewrite the beginning again . . .  for years.
  3. You’ll become a better writer, with better writing habits and better discipline.
  4. Every writing project in the future will seem easy and completely achievable in comparison with NaNoWriMo.
  5. You’ll have taken so many wrong turns in your novel and reached so many dead ends that, through the process of elimination, you now know what can’t happen in your novel and, therefore, what can.
  6. Even though your whole book is crap (see below) it’s a lot easier to rewrite and edit when you already have the bare bones of the entire story.

Cons:

  1. Your whole book is crap.  When you go back to reread the draft, the sentences are horrifying, your descriptions are fluffy instead of visionary, and in general you can never show this book to anyone.
  2. You are going to have to rewrite the whole book which, for a moment, will make you question whether or not you wasted thirty days of your life doing something unproductive (you didn’t, I swear).
  3. Because of the attention to word count rather than quality, it is almost certain that your writing won’t improve over the month.

In my opinion, the pros totally outweigh the cons.  In fact, the cons aren’t really even cons.  They’re more like complaints, complaints that every writer will have some day.  Because we all must–and dread–the rewriting stage.

**Personal submission response time for Cicada magazine (see my write up about their submission guidelines etc. here): it ended up being 8 months, 29 days for a rejected poem; in the past, I only had to wait 27 days for a personal rejection to a short story.  Obviously, it ranges . . . What’s the longest you’ve ever had to wait to hear back from a publication?

(Image, No Copyright)

Dig into the Clapboard House Archive and Submit Your Stories!

Staying with the theme of our budget writing, Clapboard House Literary Journal offers a wide selection of excerpts from past issues on their website archive.  So before submitting by their deadline–NOVEMBER 1st–get a taste of what they like.What They Want: short fiction sub-3,000 words or 3 poems.

When They Want It:  November 1st

How They Want It:  Via email.  See further submission guidelines here.

Submission Fee?  Nope.

Accept Simultaneous Submissions?  Yes.

Response Time:  Unknown.

Call for Emerging Western (Region, not Genre) Writers!

For all you writers in the great mid-West and Western sector of the United States who think they have a sense of humor, this themed call for submission is for you!  Even if you don’t live there, have you visited?  Think you can spin a good yarn off your experiences there?  Western State Press, the literary press of Western State College of Colorado, is craving some literary humor submissions that “is focused on western locations and themes.”

What They Want:  Poems, fiction, and creative non-fiction of high quality that makes the editors express the entire range of amusement–from giggles to belly-laughs.  Needs to be set somewhere Western or have Western themes.  25-page limit and PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED WORKS WILL BE CONSIDERED though unpublished submissions are preferred.

When They Want It:  submission period from August 20th-February 10th

How They Want It: via submishmash.

Win WEAVE Magazine’s 1st Annual Writing Contest

Based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Weave Magazine is a dark and fabulous literary journal.  Or, as they like to describe it:

Weave is dark humor and magical realism. Weave is strange and fantastical. Weave also loves realistic narratives in fiction and poetry. Weave loves honest and simple nonfiction, not confessional for confessions sake. Weave loves strong, well-developed characters. Weave especially loves when female characters are well thought out. Weave loves flawed characters. Weave loves retellings of old stories, fairy tales and myths. Weave is the universal told with unique, exciting language. Weave loves when writers play with language. Weave loves a poem that grabs our attention early and avoids clichés. Weave loves surprises. Weave also loves poems about animals. We love a good monkey poem, but have yet to find one. On that day, Weave will dance. Dance!

There is a distinct vibe that runs through all the pieces it publishes.  I don’t know how to explain it other than to provide an example.  The short story that stands out the most in my memory is one about a mother watching her toddler choke to death while she seriously considers the benefits of denying the child the Heimlich maneuver.  It seems morbid to claim that it’s a good magazine after describing that, but it is.  Read some samples.

What They Want:  Poetry and Flash Fiction (two separate contests).

When They Want It: July 31, 2011

How They Want It: online submission.  See further submission guidelines.

Judges:  Poetry Judge: Lisa Marie Basile and Flash Fiction Judge: Bridgette Shade

Prize?  $100 first prize for each!

I shall be submitting!  So good luck to me and to all of you as well :]