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Passing This Along…George Saunders “On Story”

Had to give a shout out to a brilliant piece by fb alum, George Saunders.

Q & A with failbetter Poet Kit Frick

Frick_KIf you know chapbooks, you know Kit Frick. As the author of two fantastic poetry chapbooks herself and the Senior Editor for Black Lawrence Press’s chapbook series, she’s probably read more chap manuscripts than anyone else out there, or at least more than any of us here at failbetter. Alongside her poem, “After the Dig,” Kit was kind enough to answer a few of our most burning questions in a brief electronic interview, where she discussed her writing process, her newly-finished YA novel, and yes, of course, chapbooks.

1) What does the writing process look like for you? Do you have a set routine that you like to follow, or do you approach each poem/project in a unique way?

With poetry, I almost always start with a notebook and pencil. A writing teacher told me once that she never wrote in pen because it seemed too permanent, like once it was in ink, it couldn’t be changed. Pencil is erasable. There’s less pressure, however self-imposed and unquantifiable, to get it right on the first draft. My first drafts are always terrible. But that’s okay! Once I have something down, the magic happens in revision. Which I do on the computer, usually in many rounds that involve printing out poems and revising by hand in-between.

2)  Your poem “After the Dig” is filled with repetition and a sense of isolation and anxiety that seems to build in each section, which left us with a deliciously creepy afterglow. Is there a particular impression or overall atmosphere you would like to leave with readers of your work?

Thanks! I love that reading. I never think too much about the reader’s potential impression when I write. Which is not to say that I don’t think about having readers. I do want an audience, and I think a poem is a kind of encounter between writer and reader. In this encounter, the writer brings a precise combination of elements to the page, and that’s what I can control. What the reader brings is mysterious, indeterminate. It’s an enigmatic convergence, something that I think can’t quite be quantified by our ideas of traditional literary analysis. But it’s thrilling to think about!

3)  So many writers and editors wear both hats simultaneously, yourself included as Chapbook Editor for Black Lawrence Press. How does one part of your writing identity feed into the other, or do you try to keep the two roles distinct from each other? What are you seeing in the chapbook scene that excites you?

They feed into each other in the best way! Through Black Lawrence, I read hundreds of chapbook manuscripts annually in poetry and short fiction. We run two chapbook contests and two month-long open reading periods each year, so let’s just say I read a lot of chaps! I’m constantly exposed to new and exiting writing—more so than I’d ever make time for as a reader, although of course I also read plenty of published books in the genres I write and edit. There’s really no way to keep the two roles distinct, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m a better writer for being an avid reader and editor, and vice versa. I’m very lucky that way.

4) Your brief bio mentions that you’re at work on your first YA (Young Adult) novel. Do you have any details about the project you’d be willing to share? What initially attracted you to the YA genre? When can we get our hands on a copy?

It’s true, and actually I need to update my bio, because I finished that YA novel, and in March I was lucky enough to sign with my agent, Erin Harris at Folio/Folio Jr, who now represents my fiction. The book is called See All the Stars, and it’s a contemporary psychological thriller set in the Pennsylvania rust belt. The narrative is non-linear, so the story plays out in alternating chapters between a very high and very low point in the main character’s life. Even though I’m now in my 30s, the emotional landscape of adolescence is still incredibly immediate for me. The deep insecurity, the heightened sense of self-discovery, the incredible heartbreak. It’s terribly satisfying to write—that’s what drew me to YA. The publishing industry is incredibly subjective and unpredictable, as I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone reading this, but let’s all keep our fingers and toes tightly crossed that you will be able to get your hands on a copy in the future!

Q & A with failbetter Poet Amy Woolard

Amy WoolardIs there anything Amy Woolard can’t do? After having the chance to sit down with the poet-writer-attorney-advocate, we at failbetter have decided probably not. With a slew of accomplishments under her belt, including degrees from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, University of Virginia School of Law, and VCU Brandcenter, as well as authoring poetry and essays that have appeared in some of the best venues around, Amy Woolard is a woman setting both the poetry and political scene on fire. Read on for her revealing insights on The Wizard of Oz, coming out of her “not-writing decade,” and how a poem can be like the tentacles of a jellyfish.

1) So, we’ll never be able to look at the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz in the same way ever again, thanks to your poem, “On the Most Terrifying Character in the Wizard of Oz”. Can you tell us a little bit more about what spurred it into being and how you approached writing it?

I have a full bin of poems that consider The Wizard of Oz, its myth-making & its propositions. I’ve been very interested in the stories I first knew intimately as a girl, at an age when my world—because of books—was more percent-magical than it was percent-actual. These are the stories I used to make sense & nonsense of growing up—& they still interest me in that capacity. I love that there is always a bit of darkness involved. I love that each character has a tangled history, even when the plot seems simple. In The Wizard of Oz, the Witch’s sister is killed; she is wicked with grief. That’s a more complicated, interesting story than “some witches are good, and some witches are bad.”

The film of The Wizard of Oz used to run once a year on network television when I was growing up, back when there were only three channels to be had, & no VCRs even. It was an occasion, & I was enthralled every time. There were moments to fear, even when you knew they were coming: the Witch, the flying monkeys, Almira Gulch seizing Toto. But I was always seriously creeped out by the Tin Man. Unlike witches & talking trees (which all seemed reasonable to me), I didn’t know what he was. He looked like a robot, but wasn’t. He cried a lot, which was, frankly, unattractive. He just had this desperation to him that seemed a touch unstable to me—a kind of emotional black hole. And then he also carried around that axe. I’m probably saying too much about this.

For this poem, & my other Oz poems, I just wanted to prune back all that precious goodness & find the mess underneath. I’m always interested in the ways in which grief & desire cohabitate, & taking in the view from the house where they live, even when that house is made of tin.

As for writing it: the poem usually tells me where to go next, even if that path tends to double back on itself.

2) You mentioned in your initial e-mail (and in previous interviews) that you’re a notoriously slow writer. Knowing this, what does the writing and revision process look like for you? Dare we ask if you’re chasing after the ever-elusive first book?

I’ve got an almost-book. I’ve mentioned elsewhere, too—not only am I a slow writer, but I stopped writing for about a decade, & only picked up again about three years ago. I only managed to salvage a handful of old poems from the early days, so for this book, I started somewhat fresh. I think many writers probably go through some version of this, but even though I know I’m officially out of my “not-writing decade,” I really do live through that terror each time I finish something new, of “I don’t have any more poems in me.” Until I do.

When I’m working on a single poem, it’s like being in a monogamous relationship. I’m completely invested—that love feeling—until it’s done. I fall for my poems. I desire them. So while there’s exhilaration when I finish a piece, there’s also a kind of grief, because slowly that rush goes away & I don’t know when I’ll feel it again. I can’t write every day—or rather, I don’t. It’s just not a positive activity for me. But I do chase that love feeling every day. I read. I take walks in the world. I flirt with people. I pay attention to words & images, the rhymes & repetitions that happen all around me. I don’t write every day, but every day I do give myself over to that thing in me that wants to write.

I should say too: one thing writers rarely seem to talk about is how the activity of writing itself does not always feel good. The things you love always come bound with the power to hurt you, to disappoint you, to expose you—things most people actively try to avoid. That tension between want to write & want to feel good is a tough negotiation, sometimes.

3) Your second poem, “We Will Have Wanted to Have” has a delightfully hypnotic effect on the reader due to your use of form and repetition. How much does formal constraint impact your own work? Do you find yourself habitually chipping away versus adding to a poem?

I have always been a devotee of ‘poem-as-spell’—the way repetition of words can be both hypnosis (what some might observe as being ‘out of it’) & meditation (what most would see as being completely ‘inside of it’). A retracing of steps as a way to find a lost thing or to recreate a crime—the air is different, as is time: you at once feel both the present and the ghost of a scene occupying the same field. I’ve also always been a sucker for the French repetitive forms: villanelles and pantoums, their incantatory effects. The relationship described in the poem has always been its own kind of villanelle—stretching & turning back on itself (sometimes turning on itself) like a wave over time. The trick with a poem like this, & with a relationship like this, is not falling so much in love with the form that its only power is to knock you under.

That said, I have developed & intentionally feed this particular form of repetition as a kind of watermark on my work, & also a way to hedge against the content becoming too precious. Poems are death-defying; they are each a tightrope, though it may stretch across different dangers for different writers. For me, it’s sentimentality down below; that’s what would kill me in a fall.

As for chipping v. adding, what I can say is: it’s more about moving things around. I love jigsaw puzzles. The way I put poems together mimics that process quite a bit. I put my box of pieces together first: single words, phrases, images, maybe a title—& then I find the corners (for me, usually the first and last lines), and spend a day or two filling in the rest of the poem. I move words and images around the page as you would jigsaw pieces that you sense are part of a similar section—the same colors, pieces of the same body. Oh, these are all part of the ocean, & this piece is the tentacles of a jellyfish. That kind of thing. Nothing gets on the page that isn’t going to appear in the poem somehow. I start & make from scratch.

4)  What have you been reading lately? What book or poet do you continually return to? Who should we publish next?

I love these kinds of questions. The one thing that can get me fired up to write, & to write better (& fail better) is to read the work of writers I admire. I’m also fortunate that, for me, many of these writers are also friends & former classmates & teachers of mine. I tend to feel about classmates & teachers the way I feel about siblings & parents: an almost absurd level of love & loyalty, no matter what they—or I—do or say.

Jane Yeh is my favorite poet writing today; both of her books [MARABOU, THE NINJAS] are exquisite & hilarious & so precise. Another poet-friend from my MFA days, Michael Jay McClure, has a distinguished career as a professor of art history, & is also writing & sending out poems again, & I couldn’t be more thrilled. We need more of his work in the world.

Lately, so many more: Chelsey Minnis’ POEMLAND is a force. I also keep coming back to Richard Siken’s WAR OF THE FOXES, Beth Bachmann’s TEMPER, Ansel Elkins’ BLUE YODEL—such ambitious voices, all. And when do we get a new Arda Collins collection?

Poets I continually return to: Lucie Brock-Broido. Frank Stanford. Charles Wright. Larry Levis. Anne Carson. Tracy K. Smith. Jorie Graham. And. And. And.

Pushcart Nominees for 2015

PushcartCongrats to this year’s fb Pushcart nominees!

For poetry:

For fiction:

Q & A with failbetter Poet Nancy Reddy

reddy_nOur own Angela Apte sat down recently with fb poet alum, Nancy Reddy,  to talk about a few things, including her recently published first collection of poems, Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions).

1) One of the most striking things about your poems is how the speakers often inhabit a world of want. There is a hunger in the poems – often a literal hunger  - but also a need on the part of the speaker for something. With that said, there is nothing feeble or weak about the female figures in your poems.

I think you’re really right that these are women shaped by hunger – and for me, that hunger or want is also really wrapped up in the desire to speak, coupled with the difficulty of speech. I think poetry has long been, for me, a way of testing out the limits of speech. I grew up in a family that was very concerned – especially for its women – about being appropriate and polite, which often times meant not saying anything too directly or saying anything that might upset anyone. As a result, I think a lot of these speakers push against that silencing.

A slight aside: I read “Come Fetch” at a reading in Madison that a bunch of our friends came to – people who aren’t themselves poets. And after I read that first line – “I was the worst of all possible wives” – I saw a bunch of slightly nervous glances at me, then at my husband, who was also in the audience, as if I might be about to confess some grievous misdeed. (I wasn’t.) So later I made a joke about it – my husband is definitely not some kind of Bluebeard burying previous wives in the basement. But I think that freedom to create speakers who are very definitely not-me has been really important as well. These women are often saying things I want to say – but their particular stories are not actually mine.

2) Your poems evoke a palpable and harsh rural landscape. How much were you influenced by your dissertation research into the Wisconsin Rural Writer’s Association? If that research has little to do with the collection, could you speak of the influences informed the collection?

These poems are really shaped by the landscape of the upper Midwest, particularly its harsh winters. I moved to Wisconsin from Texas, and though I’d grown up in Pennsylvania, with snow and winter weather, I found that the Wisconsin winter is an entirely different thing – it totally transforms the landscape. The lakes freeze over and the snow stays on the ground for months. I learned that the sunniest days are also the coldest, because it’s literally too cold for clouds to form. There’s an austere beauty in Wisconsin winters. (It’s perhaps easier to say that, now that I’ve graduated and moved to southern New Jersey, where I live literally two blocks from the beach.)

My dissertation, which is in Composition and Rhetoric, examines the work of the Wisconsin Rural Writers’ Association, an organization founded at the University of Wisconsin in 1948 to encourage creative writing in rural communities around the state. I didn’t really get started on that research until Double Jinx had already started to take shape, so I don’t think there are a lot of direct connections between that research and these specific poems. But my dissertation has helped me to think about writing broadly – why people do it, what it means to them, how they persist when other commitments intrude – and that’s an especially interesting question for the writers I study, many of whom were farm wives – people who’d been set up to believe that their most important identifier was always going to be wife and mother, who were surrounded by implicit messaging that people like them couldn’t really be writers. And in my research, I read about what having a writing group meant to them; one woman says that it has “given me an emotional outlet to supplement the monotonous routine of housework and has thus made me a more interesting and certainly more contented person.” I find that tremendously moving.

My next project is more directly influenced by these women and particularly the post-war cultural climate – tensions between domesticity and industry, modernization and nostalgia.

3) What’s the story of your book?

My book took a while to really take shape. It started in my MFA, but a good half of the poems were written after I’d graduated. Several of the other members of my MFA cohort came in with these specific visions of the book they wanted to write (and they’ve turned out really beautifully – Brittany Cavallaro’s Girl-King and Josh Kalscheur’s Tidal are two) and that really amazed me. I just knew I wanted to write poems, and I was thrilled to have the time and community to do it. It took a while for me to kind of find my footing in terms of the scope of the book. Quan Barry had us write two poems a week in our first semester of the MFA, and that was helpful in setting a sort of poetic metabolism – just writing a lot and seeing what happened. And Jesse Lee Kercheval gave great advice on the first day of her workshop, in the second semester: she said she wanted us to “write more and be less careful.” And since I can be really overly precise and obsessive about revision, that was really important in giving me freedom to keep playing and not take my work too seriously. I wrote the Miss Z poems (these two - All Good Girls Deserve and Birds Keep Nothing in Their Bones — were originally published in The Journal) that first winter in Wisconsin, and then I wrote the first Nancy Drew poem (The Case of the Double Jinx) that spring. Those poems helped me to figure out what interested me, and what questions to follow in writing the rest of the book.

I finished my MFA with a thesis titled Her Body’s Versions – which got at a lot of the central ideas of the book, versions of the self, the invention and reinvention of the female body – but it took another couple years of writing new poems and mercilessly tossing old ones to arrive at the book’s more or less final form. And I should thank my dear friend Rebecca Hazelton for some really crucial and no-nonsense advice – she told me to chuck a couple poems I’m been hanging on to, even though they probably weren’t as strong as they needed to be, and she also suggested some reordering. Ex Machina came to the front of the book at her suggestion, and she also suggested the title Double Jinx.

4) So many people (including me) struggle to fit their creative work into their family and work lives. How did work on the book fit in with work on your Ph.D? Were you still writing and editing the collection when your first son was born? If so, was he a good sleeper?

I haven’t counted, but I’d guess about half of the poems made it from my MFA thesis into the book. I believe the book was more or less done by the time my older son, Penn, was born – a very small number of the poems, I think, are from a poem a day challenge I did when he was tiny. He was decidedly not a good nighttime sleeper for the first six months or so – but he would take incredibly long naps, and I would drag myself into my office and try to write. I was so hungry for that time, because motherhood was such a big change, and writing was so hard, but it also made me feel connected to that other, non-mother version of my self. And so, in a way, the book feels like the last artifact of the person I was before I became a mother.

In terms of sustaining my poetry writing while completing the PhD, I think two things have been really crucial. The first is being part of a writing group. As I’ve developed a scholarly identity, it’s been really important to also have a place where I’m seen as a poet and where I know I’m going to be asked what poems I’m writing. It’s affirming, and it also helps keep me accountable to my writing. The second is that I’ve periodically done poem a day challenges via email. Every person on the email chain writes one poem each day and sends it out – and you’re not allowed to comment on anyone else’s work, and you’re actually discouraged from even really reading what other people send. So you have the accountability of sending new drafts  out without the anxiety of “ack, is this crazy thing I wrote this morning actually ready for anyone to read yet?” And that’s been incredibly freeing for me. (I actually think 2 or 3 of the 4 poems Fail Better published were written that way.) And because it’s for a limited period of time – 10 days or sometimes a month – I was able to fit that kind of writing in with the other work of graduate school. It’s helped also that my scholarly work is on writers, so I’m always thinking about how people write and why, and that’s helped me feel connected to my own writing self in a way that other research might not. Though of course there’s a certain irony in writing a dissertation about how ordinary people maintain a writing practice – when, to be honest, that dissertation writing at times crowded out my poem writing.

Game of Thrones…and Our Decline in Reading

Jon Snow Is Dead

Last week, season 5 of HBO’s acclaimed adaptation of George Martin’s Game of Thrones fantasy series came to its usual main-character-killing-end.    Say it ain’t so, Sir Jon Snow!  Predictably, this set of a week-long (and continuing) news reports and pundit pontifications on the shocking revelation (with spoiler alerts) that yet another beloved character from the popular series was killed off.  Terms like “shocking,” “devastating,” “unpredictable,” and other “did that just really happen?” complaints filled the blogosphere and pseudo news outlets.  Yet, the one takeaway from it all is the harsh reminder that fewer and fewer folks read anymore.  Let’s face it, the character of Jon Snow dies in the books (albeit an event that is debated).

And yes, while Martin’s A Dance with Dragons (in which Snow meets his fate) sold in the hundreds of thousands, such figures pale in comparison with the average gross audience of the TV series of nearly 20 million per episode.  True, the TV series has deviated at times from some of the plot twists of the books, but in general, much like Jon Snow’s proud papa or stepmom, the fate of these characters is already written down in black and white…in a little thing we like to call…a book.

Now some of the millions of viewers, myself included, likely came upon the TV series and then went out and read the series (others I bet have been doing the same with the Walking Dead comic book series) but the simple abundance of media stories detailing the shocking unforeseen fallout of Snow’s demise can’t help but make me realize how reading is continually losing out to other forms of media/storytelling.

Going back a decade or so, did you find yourself surrounded by colleagues who were confessing their astonishment that “I can’t believe the killed off Voldemort?”  You simply didn’t hear someone ask out loud or in print, “Who would have thought Gollum would die in the end?“  Seriously, anecdotal or not, the best of my recollection is that most folks read the likes of the Harry Potter series or Lord of the Rings before taking the story in visually.  At the very least, few internet media outlets were reacting with such shock when such characters met their demise on screen.

And we’re not talking about a film/TV adaption of exactly a difficult or obscure literary read.  So our advice to those eagerly awaiting the next season, or another film adaption of a work based on a book, let us let you in on a little secret: if you want to get a jump start on everyone and be in-the-know before all your friends, read the book.

Show Our Failbetter Fictioneers Some Love

2014 storySouth Million Writers AwardThe storySouth Million Writers Award is now open for reader and editor nominations! So failbetter fans, give our writers a little love by nominating their deserving stories at:

Nominations will be accepted through 15 August 2014.

Donald Antrim – MacArthur Fellow 2013

Congrats to a writer we’ve always loved, and are honored to have as an fb alum — Mr. Donald Antrim — winner of a 2013 MacArthur Foundation genius grant, a coveted accolade that earns them $625,000 and a spot in cultural history…and I lifetime worth of pancakes.

Love By Drowning – Q&A with C.E. Poverman

Front Coverfb alum Buzz Poverman’s latest novel, Love By Drowning, was just published….the seeds of which we help sew here at failbetter.  We had the great pleasure of publishing several excerpts of the book in its most earliest stages — and are happy to see the project come to fruition.  We’re grateful to Buzz for letting us show his work, and even more happy that he recently took a moment to answer a few questions for us.



I wrote Love by Drowning day and night for five years.  It was like a blast furnace.  Whatever I fed it, it took it and melted it down.  I went on like this, and I was just exhausted and consumed.  When I finished, the book was 680 pages.  Over the next few years, different people read it and made suggestions and each time I dug back into the manuscript.  This is just a few sentences, what I’m explaining, but each time I returned to the world of the book, often for weeks or months, it was a kind of crisis of confidence; can I cut this?  Am I doing the best thing here?  Eventually, the book came to be the length it is now—440 pages in manuscript, the novel as it is being published.  Looking back, I feel good, almost lucky, about the path its editing and revision have taken.


Four parts of the novel were published by , and this would come to have a major impact on the book and its ultimate form.  Caitlin Johnson, Andrew Day and Thom Didato read the opening, MARLIN, and pointed out where the piece took off for them and how it could reach this place faster.  With very little back and forth, I made the adjustments and everyone was happy.

Several years later I sent Thom Didato the next section, which was simply entitled, VAL.  It was much longer—maybe 35 pages.  Thom asked that it be broken into three sections, each to be given a title so that he could publish them in succession.  I looked at how and where he had made his breaks and thought they made real sense.  I went back into each section to see if titles would emerge, and in doing so I found that each time three or four good possibilities would surface, and when I came back to them a day or two later, I knew which one was right.  I realized that this process gave me another opportunity to rethink and clarify the narrative.  This is a variation on what you do when you write anything—a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, a story.  You find out where it’s going, and then, once you know, you write and rewrite toward that place, refining it until you hit the exact note you hear.  Going back to break the narrative into sections and put in titles allowed me to reenter that process one more time in a comprehensive way in what was a long novel.  It allowed me to find a method for re-inventing, reinvigorating and renewing the reader’s focus.  And so, when I came to do the final editing, I applied this process to the rest of the book.  I looked for places where I could make breaks and title those sections, and this forced me to think harder about the book as a whole and what it was about and how it took its steps in getting there.  I never would have done this if Thom hadn’t made that initial request.  It became instrumental to the final form of the novel.


While acknowledging the changing world we’re living in, I would like to see the role of editors restored to the extent that they help a writer realize his/her work.  Let me illustrate by speaking directly from my own experience.  I’ve mentioned the effect of failbetter’s editors on the parts of Love by Drowning which they edited.  In addition, there were others.  Dan Green, who had formerly been an editor at Simon and Schuster, and who for some time was my agent on the novel, was very helpful in making broad editorial suggestions; he helped me shape and cut the manuscript down.  In addition, I’m grateful to the work of Kit Duane, the editor who accepted the novel at El León and then spent months line editing the entire manuscript with me.  She was patient and astute and helped bring the book into its final fine focus; in my acknowledgements, I thank her for being an angel on my shoulder, which is exactly how I came to feel her presence.  I would like to see the restoration of editors to that role: angel on the shoulder.  It will make writers and books better.

Happy Ho Days!

fbtatooWe’re taking a few well-deserved weeks off at the end of the year, but already have a bunch ‘O new works set to be published in the New Year.   In the meantime, if you are still looking for possible gift ideas, might we suggest this…

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