Reading Like a Writer: Poetry Every Day

by Kristen Holt Browning

When the poet Lucie Brock-Broido died in March, I felt a pang of shame. I had never read her, even though throughout college and grad school, I read lots of poetry. Heck, my MA thesis focused on the poets Anne Carson, Louise Glück, and Jorie Graham. And before that, I wrote way more than my fair share of crappy adolescent poetry.

But…I graduated. I got a job. I moved to the city. I read novels, I kept up with The New Yorker. And poetry seemed so much less relevant to the everyday. Once my life expanded to encompass a husband, a house, and kids, there was even less space for poetry, which looked by then like a rarified, obtuse genre, suitable only for college campuses and late nights.

I stopped reading poetry around the same time I stopped writing. I realize now this was probably no coincidence. I stopped making time and space for poems, and without that hot language pouring into my mind, it seemed I stopped being able to produce my own words, too.

The day after Lucie Brock-Broido died, I bought her first book, Hunger. That night, before bed, I read the first poem, “Domestic Mysticism.” Actually, I read it four times in a row. Every time, my heart swelled against my ribs as I read the final lines:

Everyone knows an unworshipped woman will betray you.

There is always that promise, I like that. Kingdom of Kinesis.

Kingdom of Benevolent. I will betray as a god betrays,

With tenderheartedness. I’ve got this mystic streak in me.

Poetry can be intimidating, it can appear inscrutable. But for the last several weeks, almost every night, right before I go to sleep, I’ve read a single poem. Sometimes Brock-Broido, sometimes someone else (if I may plug a GetLit regular, I’ve also been reading Ruth Danon’s latest book, Word Has It). As it turns out, poetry doesn’t exist on some purely celestial plane; it fits quite well into a life already crammed full of deadlines, appointments, and PTA meetings. No time for a 500-page novel? Let me suggest you try “Parable” by Louise Glück tonight. Or, if you’re up for something a little longer, maybe Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay.” And don’t think that poetry has nothing to say about the political world of now: read Morgan Parker’s “If You Are Over Staying Woke” or Danez Smith’s “Two Movies” to see how poets are speaking poetic truth to political power.

As a writer, there’s  value in this practice: in my last moments of consciousness each night, I absorb pure, essential language. I like to think the words are burrowing into my mind, and supporting my own writing in some unknown, unseen way.

One poem, every night. Why not give it a try yourself? Whatever kind of writer you are, let poetry infiltrate and influence your relationship to language. Couldn’t all of our stories—hell, all of our lives—use a little more poetry?

Interview with Author Diane Lapis: Hot on the Trail of Cocktails Across America

by Julie Chibbaro

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We recently hosted author Diane Lapis who, with her writing partner Anne Peck-Davis, just published an unusual book that offers a unique overview of midcentury cocktail culture, featuring both recipes, and reproductions of the postcards used to advertise popular lounges and bars of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. But it’s more than a mere compendium of recipes and pictures. In Cocktails Across America, Lapis and Peck-Davis tease out the stories behind each postcard, revealing some mighty strange history in these United States. I cornered Diane to ask a few questions about how she wrote the book, working with a co-author, and her unusual (yet serendipitous!) path to finding not only a great publisher, but a great agent too.

GLB: At Get Lit Beacon, you read to us a story about an Atomic cocktail. Is that really true? Can you tell us how you dug that story up?

Diane: The stories in Cocktails Across America use postcards as a starting point. My coauthor Anne Peck-Davis and I used a variety of materials to learn about the origins of the cocktail, or the bar or city in which the drink was first introduced. Vintage cocktail books and menus, newspaper and journal articles and advertisements, books, and websites were our go-to resources. For certain stories, we contacted historical societies, postcard clubs, and specialty libraries.

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Two postcards depicting views of atomic blasts were featured in the Atomic Cocktail story: Benny Binion’s Horseshoe Club, and Vegas Vic’s Pioneer Club. I gathered information from the Nevada National Security Site, the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and various websites and books about popular culture in Nevada. Then I pieced together how the hospitality industry capitalized on the atomic blasts as a form of entertainment. Finding old photos of beauty queens sporting the atomic bomb style hairdo, convinced me that this story had to be told.

GLB: You also mentioned you decided to find an agent for the book once you’d written it, even though you’d already found a publisher. Can you say why you made that decision?

Diane: Anne and I were thrilled that Countryman Press (a division of W.W. Norton) was interested in our manuscript. Before signing the contract, I serendipitously met the CEO of the Curtis Brown Literary Agency. He took an interest in our project and suggested that we consider using his agency to help with the business side of publishing. I was reluctant, as we already had a publisher… what could we possibly need an agent for??? Everyone that we knew in the publishing industry highly recommended engaging the services of an agent. Anne and I then interviewed one of Curtis Brown’s agents and liked his attitude and personality. He was well versed in the field and patiently answered our long list of questions. We are so thankful that we signed with Curtis Brown! Our agent was helpful in negotiating the complicated contract and added value to it as well.

GLB: How did you work together with your writing partner? Can you share a story of when it didn’t work so well?

Diane: Working with a creative collaborator was a gratifying experience. Anne and I shared similar interests in postcards and 20th century cultural history. We readily agreed on content and the design of the book, thereby making it easy to achieve our goals. We were ready to jump into something new and bold, and delighted in stretching our horizons. We split the workload, edited each other’s writing, suggested pathways to follow, and discovered and shared new resources.

However, our biggest challenge was finding time to work together. We were free during opposite times of the day and live about a 45-minute drive from each other. Therefore, we had to carefully plan our meetings. We prepared agendas that kept us focused and ensured that we discussed specific and time-sensitive items. Sometimes we met at a bookstore or traveled to each other’s homes. We sent hundreds (possibly thousands) of emails and had many lengthy phone conversations. Scheduling telephone conferences with our editor and agent required additional planning. Anne and I both loved working on this project, so we found positive ways to deal with our time challenge.

 

Paul Lisicky: An Essay, a Poem, a Story, and a Song

By Flora Stadler

Author Paul Lisicky’s memoir The Narrow Door reads like a scrapbook elegy—its loss archived in love notes, fragments of feeling, snapshots of memory. The book (a New York Times Editors’ Choice) documents the death of his longtime friend and fellow writer, Denise Gess, and the disintegration of his relationship with his ex-husband, writer Mark Doty. There’s emotional enormity in his remembering, the placement of personal and natural disaster side by side—cancer and the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helen; isolation and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. I love the structure and sensibility of this book, and that’s why I asked him:

What was the one thing you didn’t want to do when writing The Narrow Door?


“This is a great question but a tough one for me too, because I don’t think I ever consciously write out of negation. With The Narrow Door in particular, I was trying to see how much life I could get on the page without destroying it, without making some incomprehensible mess. I say that knowing so many of my favorite visual artists and writers make amazing work out of subtraction—in other words, limiting their work to the use of a few terms. Think of songwriters who write songs built of two chords, or graphic novelists who use only black and white. I’m fascinated by that approach, but I seem to be after trying to accommodate my too-muchness, always asking myself how much can I put out there? Can this feel like an essay, a poem, a story, and a song all at the same time? Can I create a sense of simultaneity, a sense of the connections between disparate people, who are never really all that separate if we hold them side by side?

So I never really go into any project overtly thinking about what I’m not going to do. It’s much more intuitive than that. It’s more like writing thirty pages and thinking, maybe—hmm. This feels more like F minor when I need three chord changes here. Or: this feels bright yellow when it needs some darker yellow and gold and bright green. Or: my friend was a hell of a lot sillier than this self-dramatizing person I’ve conjured up. Start again. So a lot of different moods are tried on until I find something that feels remotely accurate. I’m sure at a certain point in The Narrow Door I must have been thinking of other grief books. I must have been thinking, Man, this could be an awful slog, some guy’s feelings in the wake of his friend’s death. Who would want to read that? Haven’t other people done that better? The shock was the book started evolving into its own creature over time. Even the most crushing stuff, say, the climate catastrophes, had a weird kind of awe and alertness about it, and the book was so much less about death and mourning than it was, well, the texture of going through the day in the middle of trouble. But that never felt chosen. What better way to kill a book before it’s even had a chance to breathe? At least for me, I should say. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m tossing out some maxim that should be true for everyone.

But back to your question. I think all of my work is written out of some desire not to write the book that’s already on the shelf, but I don’t want to repeat myself either, which is a hell of a lot harder to do than it sounds. Joy Williams says: ‘The moment a writer knows how to achieve a certain effect, the method must be abandoned. Effects repeated become false, mannered.’ That’s sort of religion to me. Those words might sound scrupulous to the point of scary, but I don’t think there’s any better way to stay alive as an artist, a person.”

The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship, along with Paul Lisicky’s other books, is available at Indiebound. His next novel, Later, is coming in 2020 from Graywolf Press.

Burning Questions About Book Publishing: Literary Agents, Part One

By Ruta Rimas

Thank you to those who submitted questions for me to answer about book publishing at the Get Lit Salon on May 20th. There was one common theme – agents! At my day job, I regularly work with literary agents, so I’m excited to offer insight into the work that these publishing professionals do.

To keep this post short, I will break the column into two parts with the second part posting in late June.

PART ONE

Do I need an agent?
If you want to traditionally publish your book, it is in your best interest to find good representation. Many publishing houses are closed houses, which means that the acquiring editors are only able to evaluate projects submitted via an agent. Some smaller houses accept unsolicited (unagented) projects, though policies are shifting all the time. Thankfully, many publishers share their submission policies online.

This book is a great resource for learning more about agents.

What makes a good agent?
A good literary agent is a business partner. A good agent considers you a long-term client and will invest in your career. Some agents help you edit and refine your work, polishing it for submission. A good agent writes a great pitch for your project and then, using their network of editors, curates a list of editors to submit and who they think will be a good fit for your book. The commission an agent receives – generally 15% of the advance, royalties, and subsidiary rights deals – is well worth it.

A good agent tailors their strategy to your project’s needs. For example, a good agent will be able to evaluate which publishing house and what size house might best support your work. Not all houses publish every book the same way, and a good agent will help you navigate that terrain. Sometimes a regional publisher or small press is best for your work, and a good agent will know that.

A good agent negotiates the best terms for your (complicated) book contract including the basics: advance, royalties, territory, and subsidiary rights. The guest speaker for the Get Lit May salon, Diane Lapis, spoke about how her agent was able to push for better terms for her book, Cocktails Across America.

A good agent knows the ins-and-outs of the business of publishing, and advocates for you with your editor when it comes to things like marketing, publicity, distribution channels, and more. A good agent knows how to manage pie-in-the-sky dreams while being realistic with you about how your project fits into the overall literary landscape.

Stay tuned for part two of this post, which will address: How do I find an agent who is right for me? When should I submit a query to an agent?

How Should A Novel Be? Genre And Sheila Heti’s Motherhood

By Kristen Holt Browning

“So, what do you write?” It’s an often heard question at Get Lit. I have my go-to answer of “short stories and poems.” I don’t mention the multi-part essays I’m working on that draw on events from my own life interspersed with musings on historic events (on a good day, I think of these pieces as “elegant” or “lyrical,” on a bad day, “rambling” or “utterly incoherent”). I don’t bother to mention that I write things that mix autobiography, history, mythology, fiction, nonfiction, the made-up, the concrete. It’s much easier to say, “short stories and poems. What about you?”

As writers, we’re supposed to fit into genre slots. Literary magazines, agents, contests, editors—they all focus on poetry, or fiction, or nonfiction. But what if your work falls between the genre cracks?

If you’re Sheila Heti, you draw extremely heavily on your own life, people your novel with characters who share the names of your actual friends, and subtitle your work “A Novel from Life,” as she did with her first novel, How Should A Person Be?

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Heti’s new novel, Motherhood, also barely confines itself to the constraints of the genre. Over the course of 300 pages, the speaker, a writer named Sheila who is the same age as the author, and lives in the same city as the author, debates whether or not to have a child. She talks to her partner, her mother, her childless friends, and her friends with children. She meanders; she posits; she interrogates; she wavers. In other words, nothing happens, except life. This “novel” contains little in the way of traditional plot, climax, or resolution.

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The central question of the narrative—should I have kids?—is the focus of most of the many articles and reviews that have already been written on this book. But for me, as a writer, what I find so invigorating about Motherhood is how unconcerned it is with genre, and with adhering to the rules of what a novel should be. If the genre doesn’t support one’s writing, she seems to suggest, the work—not the category—comes first. So, inspired by Sheila Heti, I’m going to keep writing my messy, slippery little pieces, and I’m going to follow them across whatever boundaries they may transgress.