Prairie Wolf Press Review

barnI grew up in a log cabin that my father built, and my grandmother lived in a little house halfway down the long gravel road between my cabin and the county road. Every day after school the bus would drop me off and I would stop at my grandmother’s house and say “I’m starving.” She would feed me a fried apple pie or some other treat she’d made, and I would find out what she was making for dinner. Then I would go home and say to my mother, “I’m starving,” and see what I could get from her. Whoever had the best dinner plan was where I would make my evening’s reservations.

I’ve just published two poems in Prairie Wolf Press Review about that time. It was glorious. Tell me what you think.

There was a hog farm just down the road from us that was glorious in a different way. I suppose one makes one’s fun with what is at hand. The Gospel Chicken House is a real place.

I’m curious what others remember from those days. Did you have one of those elastic book bands? I’m sure they must be forbidden now.

West End Poetry Festival 2012

The 2012 West End Poetry Festival was a complete and rousing success. Alan Shapiro, our headlining poet, got nominated for a National Book Award (probably because they heard he was at our festival). Dorianne Laux, Joe Millar, Rachel Richardson, Stephanie Levin, and Florence Nash read at Flyleaf Books on Friday night. A thousand thanks go out to Jamie Fiocco for her tremendous assistance (please support Flyleaf Books).

On Saturday we heard from:

  • Jo Taylor
  • Andrea Selch
  • Rob Greene
  • Joe Millar
  • Dorianne Laux
  • Lou Lipsitz
  • Jaki Shelton Green
  • Alan Shapiro
  • Celisa Steele
  • Susan Spalt
  • Tyler Johnson
  • Jay Bryan

A special thanks to Catherine DeVine for inspiration, hard work, and a dream that we could all follow. And deep appreciations go to Rah Trost and the Carrboro Recreation Department for their support.

A wonderful open mic featured readings by some truly fabulous local poets. I heard old friends and discovered new talent. (apologies if we didn’t get everyone’s name right. Please let me know and I can correct it.)

Thanks to sponsors, including Logan Carter – Realtor, Carolina Wren Press, Raleigh Review, and Amante’s Pizza.

And of course, the Carrboro Poets Council: Jay Bryan, Susan Spalt, Celisa Steele, Catherine DeVine, and Tyler Johnson.

See you next year.

All In

OK. Here’s the thing. This is a picture of my son’s plate as he helped himself to dinner. I have noticed that children consistently put their plates only halfway on the table. This phenomena extends to other activities as well. For example, when working on a project, the object under development will often be balanced precariously on the edge of the workspace, with screws, spare parts, and other potentially valuable or messy things rolling around, scattering, and dripping to the floor.

Why is this?

At first I thought it was because they were short. That is what they have claimed, at any rate. But the oldest, and the villain who set the very trap in this photo, is now taller than I.

No, I think something more fundamental is at work here. Something… elemental.

I think the reason that people balance the things they love precariously on edges is because they are treading lightly. Too lightly. They instinctively hold back. They don’t want to fully commit. They are not all in.

And while I am now, at this stage of my life, a firm plater, confidently centering myself over my own stable dinner, there are aspects of my life that I still set up for failure. That I rig for fragility.

Why would any of us do this?

I see this especially in creative endeavors. Writing students tiptoeing into a scene. Dancers apologetically letting their minds steer their bodies like student drivers attempting that first halting merge into traffic.

It is the same for me performing music. If I am not fully committed to the performance, if I hold back, then the rhythm is shaky and unstable.

Only by going all in do we reach that stable center.

Memoir and Story

One of the common problems I see in writing workshops is the memoir writer who is struggling to tell his story. I don’t have a solution to this problem, but I recognize it, and I think that’s important.

Fiction writers in particular can often have some distance from their story. For example, the princess that is using her magical amulet to force her step-brother from the throne is a great story, but is not an issue most of us have to deal with on a daily basis.

By contrast, the memoir writer will often be confronted by other members of the workshop about his writing, and throw up his hands, saying, “but that’s what happened!”

The point is this: writing is a craft, and you’ve got to be able to use all of your characters to great effect. You’ve got to allow them to make terrible choices, step into peril, fail to see important details. All of the people in the memoir, including the narrator, are characters. And if you don’t treat them that way, it is going to be a much less satisfying experience for the reader.

Put another way, and bluntly, nobody really cares about you. I mean, unless you are president of a large country, why should I read about you? You’ve had struggles? I’ve had struggles. So what?

What people want is a story. They want to be taken on a journey. So the memoir writer sometimes has a bigger challenge than other writers. For starters, this may be one of their first serious attempts at writing. They haven’t yet perfected their craft. But now they have to try to develop their craft not with a princess, but with themselves, their mothers, their broken childhoods. It’s a lot harder to be objective about that.

I welcome advice from others who have successfully navigated this labyrinth. I don’t know the answer, but I think that recognizing the challenge is an important first step.

Dynamic Range

One of the key elements that gets overlooked by new writers is what I think of as dynamic range. This is a concept that is used to great effect in other art forms like photography and music.

You’ve got a limited frame in which to work. In photography that’s the border of the image. In music, it’s the length of the piece. And of course you want to deliver some excitement, some payoff. After all, that’s the whole point of the piece. The payoff. But to get there, you have to leave yourself somewhere to go.

If your whole image is bright and exciting, what’s going to draw the viewer’s eye to a particular spot in the photograph? If your entire musical performance is thumping away at eleven, well, there’s really no where to go from there.

Instead, you want to have plenty of calm spaces in your work. Areas where the pacing, color, and detail are relaxed, or different in tone, compared to the climax.

This can be purely manipulative, and is really not fair to the reader. But heck, they’ve bought a ticket, and chances are they are just as much a thrill junkie as anyone else. Don’t be afraid to take them on a ride.

For example, one of the most effective ways to get to a real tear jerk moment is to lull the reader with a sense of the mundane for quite some time. Get them used to the idea that things are plodding along in a particular direction. Then shift into your emotional content. Brevity can be a virtue here. The emotional content can cause the reader to see the scene in a different, more serious, light.

The opposite works as well. You can be serious, serious, serious, funny.

You should actually be able to graph the energy of your scene. This will make you conscious of the movement and energy in your work.