Had to give a shout out to a brilliant piece by fb alum, George Saunders.
If 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!
Is 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.
Congrats to this year’s fb Pushcart nominees!
- “How to Use a Book of Hours” by Hilary Vaughn Dobel from failbetter 57
- “Ravens” by Lori Lamothe from failbetter 57
- “[You are a pool of oil]” by Jennifer Moore from failbetter 56
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.
Although the characters on AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead have very little time between slowly trudging through the woods, killing things with knives, and whispering at each other to sit down with a good book, here’s what we recommend if they did.
Rick Grimes – Maybe Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People could help Rick become a better leader to the core cast? He’d probably be kind of surprised when he flipped through the index and didn’t find the words ‘punching’ or ‘machete,’ but if he took the time to really study the text I think it could help him lead everyone to their death much more manageably.
Carol Peletier – While many authors have ripped of H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Ligotti seems like the only one who read the cosmic horror generated by the master and thought, ‘This guy gets it.’ If Carol sat down with Ligotti’s own Songs of a Dead Dreamer, she’d probably have a similar reaction.
Daryl Dixon – Daryl doesn’t strike me as much of a reader, but he’s got daddy issues and used to be a biker so I’d toss him a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Maybe it would chill him out, although most likely the greatest benefit would be that if he started spouting quotes like, ““Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive” all the time, the other characters would probably stop giving him such a hard time when he wanders off to spend time alone.
Glenn Rhee – Glenn is about to become a father, assuming he or his wife of their unborn child isn’t eaten by monsters, first, so I’d recommend he spend some time with Spoiled Brat by Simon Rich so he could at least have a laugh while he’s waiting to lose everything that matters to him.
Maggie Greene – Maggie’s watched her entire family die over the last season or so of the show, and I don’t know if these adult coloring books are actually as calming and therapeutic as I’ve heard but I’d probably give her one of those. Actually no, they probably don’t come across many crayons in the dirty, zombie infested woods of Georgia. How about…Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, instead.
Michonne – This is a tough one. Michonne’s smart, fierce, sympathetic…maybe a little too pragmatic to get wrapped up in reading, given that she lives in a zombie world, so it would be better if we gave her something short…are there books about sword maintenance? There must be, right? I’m afraid to look through Amazon for books on sword maintenance because then my recommendations are going to become all weird.
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.
Last night I attended the first annual AWP Costume Parade and Ball. Prizes were given for best-all-around, most creative, and best team costumes. I didn’t win a prize, but I did get a bad burn on my face when a man dressed as George Eliot threw a lit candle at me when I pointed out that George Eliot was actually the pen name of a woman named Mary Ann Evans.
“You think I don’t know that?” the guy said. “I’m a fucking tenured professor at an Ivy League school. It’s in Boston. That’s all I’ll say.”
If the Ivy League is a trash dump, Harvard is the hobo who thinks no one can tell he’s masturbating because he’s got his hand down his pants instead of his dick out in the open.
“But you’re dressed as a man,” I said. Not caring, but fighting is fun.
“I’m the idea of George Eliot,” the guy said. “I wouldn’t expect you to get it. It’s a comment on the fact that people don’t know she’s a woman.”
I asked him how anyone was supposed to figure that out and he said the right people, who the costume was meant for, would know. I said by the right people he must have been talking about other stupid buffoons and he grabbed the centerpiece off the table—a candle, like I said—and popped me in the face with it.
The only thing I regret is that I didn’t get burned for a line more cutting than calling him a buffoon.
This was at the ball, after the parade, while we were waiting for the prizes to be announced. I was sitting across from the George Eliot guy, the rest of our table was made up of six different Max’s from Where The Wild Things Are. Max was by far the most popular costume at the show, followed by the bearded men in flannel who decided to pass themselves off as Hemingway (forget that Hemingway probably didn’t have gauges in his ears or wax his mustache up into stupid little curls) followed by ‘slutty’ takes on Austen and Brontë heroines.
There was one Jane Eyre that had especially caught my eye earlier in the evening—it’s amazing how those frumpy Victorian dresses can go from drab to fab with just a couple missing buttons, lipstick, and a blowout, especially when the clothes are struggling to contain some serious Kate Upton style curves and topped off with a sharp-featured pretty face twisted into a kind of judgmental scowl. And if we’re being honest, the scowl was what did it for me. Maybe I was raised all wrong but there’s nothing hotter than a judgmental woman. Except maybe for a judgmental woman with chalk dust on her hands and a scar shaped like a seashell at the point of her chin. Sometimes I wonder if this fairly specific kink has anything to do with why I have no memory of third grade, but when I ponder that too hard I tend to get a migraine and lose control of my bladder, so I’ll probably never really know for sure.
Anyway, I ended up at the table with all the Max’s and George Eliot because I was angling to meet this Jane Eyre. She was sitting at the table directly across, with my seat in her direct eyeline. I wasn’t in costume but in my experience all you need to do to get a woman’s attention at AWP is let her believe you’re an established writer, which means turning your name ID tag around so no one can see your name and acting like you’re caught between wondering why no one is kissing your feet and acting like you’re being stalked by a murderer.
When the guy hit me with the candle it burned my face and splashed hot wax all over, too, so I got up from the table to run outside so no one would see me cry. I thought for a moment the Jane Eyre woman would follow me to see if I needed help, that she’d hold a cold compress to my burns and we’d fall in love and go back to her hotel, make love between five and nine times and then in the morning she’d try to slip me $300 cash, and I’d realize she thought I was an escort. But she wither didn’t notice or didn’t care.
I waited around for a while outside, thinking maybe the George Eliot guy would come out and I could avenge myself upon him, but after a while I got bored and went back to the hotel. So I don’t know who won the costume contest, but I did ‘slip’ in the lobby and made a big stink, so my room for the rest of the weekend is free.
Usually, I love the bookfair at AWP for one reason: the stink of desperation. Endless aisles, table after table, all these people sitting there increasingly glassy-eyed, hoping for someone to care. To come check out their chapbooks or website or the benefits of the low residence MFA they’re offering. The desperation is so thick—especially by the end of the second day of the conference—that it’s probably irresponsible of the organizers not to have trays of Xanax set out by the exits and psychological specialists available for on the spot consultations in the lobby.
Can’t blame these exhibitors for getting a bit gloomy. These poor souls spill all this blood and shed all these tears thinking their product/publication/program matters and then travel to some distant city at personal expense to set up and share the fruit of their labor only to discover that basically no one gives a shit. And the sheer volume of people that don’t give a shit is staggering. Sit at an exhibition table at AWP and you’ll watch hundreds, maybe thousands, of people walk by not caring about your hard work. Most of them won’t even respond if you call out or make eye contact if the do accidentally look your way, because they don’t want to have to pretend to give a shit. If they look over all they’re doing is confirming that you’re not McSweeney’s, and if you’re not McSweeney’s you’re screwed.
Actually if you are McSweeney’s it’s probably no better, because what you end up with is all these folks flocking to you, all these desperate dreamers with a manuscript and a sense that they’re owed something, because the only people at AWP more desperate than the exhibitors are the folks the exhibitors are trying to attract.
Anyway, it’s typical for exhibitors to express their desperation through gimmicky giveaways at their tables. Sometimes it’s just free stuff—a tote bag, a bookmark, some postcards; sometimes it’s free books or magazines; sometimes they have food. Who can forget AWP 2012, when 87 people were hospitalized after getting the Norwalk Virus from some bad brownies at the table of one online lit journal? Or AWP 2014, when Jonathan Franzen raised money for the construction of the American Writers Museum by auctioning off the chance to have him take a bodyshot of grape Faygo soda off the highest bidder?
This year, first thing on my first day at the conference, I saw the craziest gimmick yet, and I’m actually feeling pretty upset about it. This publisher called Intensitsea, who specialize in ‘electronic post-translation literature with a focus on a systematic reduction of gender’ has a cheap Weber gas grill set up on their table next to a cardboard box full of about 150 baby silkie chicks. For every AWP attendee who signs up for their mailing list, they’ll spare one chick—and Saturday night at 5pm, when the bookfair ends, they’re going to toss the remaining chicks onto the grill and roast them alive.
I spoke with Gene Slatter, the publisher of Intensitsea, in order to find out what the fuck he was thinking; he told me that he believes the work Intensitsea is producing is of such dire importance for “the future of literature and Earth and possibly even worlds beyond the realm of common knowledge,” that the sacrifice of some baby chicks is a fair price for getting the word out.
I also spoke with an AWP coordinator who asked not to be named but said nothing about being described. A woman around sixty-years old, curly reddish hair and an amulet containing what looks like clippings of human hair around her saggy throat. I wanted to know why AWP was allowing this to happen—cruelty to animals for sure, and a fire code violation at the very least—and she told me that Slatter was being permitted the right to pursue his religious freedoms. I asked her what religion it was that included barbaric rites like roasting sweet baby chicks to death, and was told ‘The kind of religion that spreads quickly, that rings of a truth you’ve always known but never articulated, that gives names to shapes you’ve seen but never known.’
Guys, if you’re at AWP please take a moment to track down the Intensitsea booth and I guess sign up for their newsletter. It might be the only way to save these baby chicks. I thought about stealing the box off the table but I got priors and can’t take the heat.
1. Try revising your draft as if someone who wasn’t a totally worthless, talentless hack was writing it.
2. Relax, remind yourself that no one who ever wrote anything worth a damn ever got blocked, and start researching trade schools in your area.
3. Find a work of literature that really inspires you and throw it in the garbage because you don’t deserve the pleasure of reading and all that inspiration was clearly some kind of illusion.
4. Go back to something you wrote previously, re-read it and take some time to contemplate how the rigors of aging have ruined your brain and deprived you of any promise you once had.
5. Catch the next flight to the Williamsburg-Newport News airport. When you land rent a car. Leaving the airport, take a right onto Denbigh Blvd, then another right onto Old Denbigh. Keep straight as Old Denbigh becomes Oriana Rd, continue on as Oriana Rd become Lakeside drive. Take a left on Victory Rd, then a right on Pond View. Park at the corner of Pond View and Wind Forest Ln, and walk to the end of the block. You’ll see a tan house, second from the end of the block. Go around back and look under the west corner of the deck, you’ll find a plastic goat mask and a parka. Remove your clothes and put these on, then come up onto the deck and wait for me, I’ll come to you, I’ll take care of everything.
6. Relieve some stress by screaming at your kids for laughing too loud (make sure you explain you’re just trying to break through a block, they’ll understand).
7. Try shaking up your routine by developing an addiction to a Schedule II narcotic.
8. Try urinating out into the yard through the mail slot in your front door (it’s not as easy as you’d think!)
9. Search the internet for advice on getting past a block. Search and search. See how many pages of results there are? So many. You know what all these pages, all these pages and pages have in common? You don’t? Better read them all, then.
10. Take a moment to reflect on the fact that being blocked while trying to write is a minor problem in the scope of the full human experience. Think of all the people starving, freezing, without shelter. Think of the refugees, think of all the people all over the world dying from easily treated diseases. All this, and you’re spending your day worried you can’t figure out what some imaginary character should say to some other imaginary character. Doesn’t that seem so meaningless, really? Isn’t that kind of a decadent problem? I mean, how unbelievably lucky you are, that writer’s block is your biggest problem. Did anyone ever throw acid in your face for the crime of trying to go to school? Isn’t that awful? And has anyone written a story about that kind of thing yet, or a poem? Maybe worth thinking about…maybe write something about that.