Concerning Craft: Ode to the World Before Climate Change

Marlena Chertock has two books of poetry, Crumb-sized (Unnamed Press, 2017) and On that one-way trip to Mars (Bottlecap Press, 2016). She lives in Washington, D.C., and uses her skeletal dysplasia and chronic pain as a bridge to scientific poetry. Her poems and short stories have appeared in Breath & Shadow, The Deaf Poets Society, Noble/Gas Quarterly, Paper Darts, Rogue Agent, Wordgathering, and more. Marlena is the communications coordinator for the LGBTQ Writers Caucus and is on the planning committee for OutWrite. Find her at marlenachertock.com or @mchertock.

Marlena’s poem “Ode to the Eastern Shore” appeared in LPR’s Winter 2019 issue. She read this and two more poems at our January issue launch (video below).

Marlena’s guest post is part of our regular “Concerning Craft” series.

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Concerning Craft: In Defense of the Multi-Genre Writer

Nicole Hylton is a writer-of-all-trades from southern Maryland. She writes poetry, short stories, and nonfiction essays and has completed two novellas, Internet Official and Dropping Her Gloves. Her work has appeared in The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review (where she is a regular contributor), Aethlon, and SlackWater. She holds a BA in English from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, with minors in sociology and women, gender, and sexuality studies.

Nicole’s poetry, “the missing recipe,” appeared in LPR’s Winter Issue 2019 (available for purchase through this link). She read this and another poem at our issue launch in January (video below). This guest post is part of our regular “Concerning Craft” series.

“So, what do you write?”

It’s perhaps one of the most common questions I’m asked at conferences and readings. It’s an innocuous question, an easy icebreaker writers ask other writers to start off the conversation, but I have struggled to find an easy answer to it.

I enjoy writing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, all in different ways but in about equal measure. I do not have a default genre as I believe many other writers do. I go through cycles, of course, of writing a lot of one genre and less of the other two, but usually the genre comes to me at the same time the story does. The story often suggests the genre when it comes to me. I’ll think of an idea for a story I want to tell, and the story will say, “Hey, I think I would look really good as a poem.” For example, let’s say I watch the movie Wonder Woman for the first time and feel empowered by the way the titular character is written, given how female superheroes have been portrayed in past films. In about the same instant, I’ll think, “There’s a poem in here somewhere,” or “I could write an essay about this.” (For those playing along at home, I wrote an essay, and you can read it here at The Eckleburg Review.)

In general, though, when it comes to genre, there aren’t any black and white rules for me. In fact, I would argue there is a substantial amount of carryover between genres. And I’m not talking about cross-genre work (although I am particularly fond of prose poems). I mean that there is writing advice that applies regardless of genre that all writers can use. Here are some that I find myself using nearly every day.

Every sentence must serve a purpose. I’ve heard this advice from multiple sources and in a variety of ways, but the gist has always been that every piece of the written work (be it a sentence in a short story or a stanza in a sonnet) must serve some purpose. According to Kurt Vonnegut, “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.” I don’t know how much I believe that exact claim, but I do believe that every piece of your narrative must be serving some kind of purpose: it must provide something new that has not already been said. Everything in there should be in there for a reason. Clutter is not useful.

The first line is a powerful thing. Not only should the first line of a work be attention-grabbing and put your reader’s butt in their chair, so to speak, but it should intrigue in other ways. The best first lines will disorient your reader, drawing them in to further understand. Most importantly, your first line (and the first couple of paragraphs of longer works) will teach your reader how to read the rest of the work. The first line is the entry point for the reader, the looking glass through which the rest of the work can be seen.

“The most important part of the story is the one you don’t hear.” This quote comes from the main character of Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Lacuna, a closeted gay man persecuted in the 1950s by the American government for his sexuality and relationships with communists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. What isn’t said and why is just as important (and often more interesting) than what is. What are characters holding back and why? What do they not feel at liberty to express out loud? What isn’t said can often reveal just as much about a character or speaker as what they do say.

There are a number of other writing recommendations I’ve received that could probably be added to this list, but these should give you something to start with. See if you can apply some of your own writing advice to other genres, and try writing in a genre you haven’t in the past.

So, what do I write? Well, I write a little bit of everything.

Concerning Craft: Four Ways to Find Inspiration in Writer’s Block

Adam Gianforcaro is the author of the poetry collection Morning Time in the Household, Looking Out and children’s picture book Uma the Umbrella. His poems can be found in Poet Lore, the Minnesota Review, Maudlin House, Literary Orphans, and others.

Adam’s poem, “I Want to Hold My Boyfriend’s Hand,” appeared in LPR’s Winter Issue 2019 (available for purchase through this link). He read this poem and two others at our issue launch in January (video below). In this guest post, which is part of our regular “Concerning Craft” series, he focuses on strategies for overcoming writer’s block.

Writer’s block is one of the most thwarting traditions of the creative mind, but one we all experience. Some try to find ways over this block with a change of environment or a third pot of coffee, but after a short break, writers often come back to their laptops still feeling frustrated and uninspired. Instead of seeing writer’s block as a barrier to a current project, it may help to imagine it as a detour sign, a cue to change directions and take in new scenery before coming back to the road where you had originally stopped.

There are plenty of ways to get out of your head and back to the project at hand, but when writer’s block shakes the foundations of creativity and rises from the ground with wrath and fury, why not fight this creative suppressant by creating art of another form?

  • Get inspired: Many people find reading one of the best remedies for overcoming writer’s block. Not only is it a good way to get out of your own head, but it’s also a great way to find inspiration. One way to do this is by viewing the work you are reading in its micro form, sentence by sentence. For example, while reading If Beale Street Could Talk, I came across a sentence that stopped me in my tracks: “The mind is like an object that picks up dust.” Lines like these, even when taken out of context, sing with beauty and symbolism and versatility. With this, writers can find inspiration not in grand ideas and plot direction, but by viewing books and other art works that once seemed familiar in a new and up-close way.
  • Repurpose an old work: Giving an old piece of writing a new identity may also help you break from your barricaded funk. Take inspiration from the previous Beale Street prompt by scouring some of your writings and searching for one or two of your sharpest sentences. Then, use these as inspiration for a poem. Or, if you have an old poem, use a line or two from that as your muse for a short story or creative nonfiction piece. There are many ways to repurpose old writings—even those that may be unsuccessful in their current format—and make them shine like new.
  • Design a broadside: For poets and flash-fiction writers, broadsides are an underrepresented and underutilized way to breathe new life into your work. Experimenting with two-dimensional design and adding visual enhancements to a short work (new or old) can turn your literary feat into a piece of visual art. And don’t worry if you don’t think you can draw well. Simplistic line drawings and abstract color blocking can take your work from a great piece of writing to an awe-inspiring broadside.
  • Make something and destroy it: Writer’s block can be frustrating, and many times, we may not want to dive into another project or experiment with different forms of art to help alleviate the obstruction at hand. Writer’s block can make you want to throw your laptop out the window, burn your notebooks, and scream bloody murder. We have all been there. So embrace that feeling, but in a safe and constructive way. For example, you can build a tiny fortress with toy building blocks, only to tear it down with an aggressive swoop of the hand. Of course, yoga or aerobics could also act as positive, physical ways to alleviate the frustrations of writer’s block, but you may find it symbolically pleasing to build your own walls with colorful pieces of plastic and use your hand as a wrecking ball. The only downside of this is the clean-up afterwards.

So whether you decide to take a break from your current writing project to create something new or use your time to figuratively destroy the physical manifestation of writer’s block, using these tips can help you gain a new sense of accomplishment and greater control for getting around the wall that was once obstructing your writing. And with this clearer vision, you will see that the wall wasn’t all that big in the first place, and all you had to do was take a step back and walk around.

Beyond Resistance: Transcending the Boundaries in Poetry

Photo Credit: Amelia Golden

This guest post comes from Brionne Janae. Her poem, “Alternative Facts,” appeared in LPR‘s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Janae is a poet living in Brooklyn, New York. She is a Hedgebrook and Vermont Studio Center alumni and proud Cave Canem Fellow. Her poetry and prose have been published in the American Poetry Review, Bitch magazine, Sixth Finch, Plume, the Nashville Review, and Waxwing, among others. She is the author of After Jubilee, published by Boaat Press. Visit her website: www.brionnejanae.com.

The world is an ugly place. I have spent the majority of my adulthood learning and unlearning this lesson as I, like many of us, have struggled against the urge to succumb to the bitterness that daily threatens to pull us under, like quicksand thickening at the ankles. During one of my most memorable lessons I was teaching several community poetry workshops in Boston. It was the day after the 2016 election, and I entered my evening workshop to find that my students were as hurt and heartbroken as I was. Where the results of the election, and that 53%, had rendered me wordless, they in turn were ready to write poems that grieved, poems that screamed and set fire, poems that would curse the then-president-elect into the ground, where he belongs.

There is a long illustrious lineage of this poetry which works to document what is ugly in our world. Poems that rage against and weep for the individual and systemic violences and erasures endemic to the lives of people who exist at the margins. The cannon of resistance or protest poetry is as long and varied as it is gorgeous and important. And in times like our current political moment, when the world is not more hideous, but simply more visibly, unavoidably awful it can appear as if every poem and poet worth reading is writing as an act of resistance.

Of course this issue of what is visibly awful must be addressed. For Black people who have continuously been shot dead in our homes, churches, and streets, by agents of the state and homegrown terrorists alike, for Black and Brown people who have been locked up like animals, for Brown people who have been harassed and harangued and thrown into cages for breathing on the wrong side of some white man’s border, for indigenous people who are still fighting to protect the sanctity of their sacred spaces, the visibility of all that is ugly in the world has never been anything worth questioning, and it is only whiteness in all its innocence that is just being made aware of the nightmare.

That the world has been obviously horrid for some and only newly horrid for others is reflected in our art. White poets have had the privilege to write about nature, about joy, love, lust, and transcendence while others of us have been subsumed by the literature of struggle, violation, and overcoming. And while I do believe the move to invite the poetry of resistance into our cannon is monumentally important, as it marks an important shift away from the racist gate-keeping of those who would wish to keep the cannon old, pale, male, and pasty, I worry at times that it is presented as marginalized writers’ only option for poetry, that the only way for Black or Brown or queer writers to be read and read widely is for them to centralize and elevate their pain over all else in their writing.

I’ve heard poets say they feel pressure to write poems about police brutality or lynchings because that’s what’s expected from them. I too, have felt at times this nagging sense of guilt for not writing poems to elegize the latest victims of white supremacy though I have read their stories, marched in the streets in protest, and grieved for them as if they were my own blood and bone. I know this feeling of guilt is not unique to me, and I refuse to let it shape the way I art. If I spend all of my time reacting to the white supremacist patriarchy when do I get the chance to write the poems I want to write? That I am called to write? And to be clear, I don’t think anyone is called to write protest or resistance poetry. Not because it is, in any way, a lesser art form, but because I simply don’t believe anyone is called to oppression. Oppression is not a calling it is a situation, and while for many of us it is not temporary it is not the only thing that makes up our lives, and so, should no be the only thing that makes up our art. Continue reading

Meet the Editors: Q&A with Dominique Cahn

In this post we ask LPR’s nonfiction editor, Dominique Cahn, some questions on being a nonfiction editor and on what makes a great piece of memoir or essay.

Dominique Cahn was born in Haiti and moved to New York City when she was six years old. She majored in Politics and Latin American Studies at Princeton University and earned her Masters in Public Health Degree from Yale University. After graduate school, Dominique moved to Washington, D.C., where she embarked on her career in health care policy and government relations. She conducted health related studies in Haiti and Belize and represented the medical device and biotechnology industries on U.S. regulatory and and legislative issues. She lived in Kazakhstan and traveled to Russia and other countries in the former Soviet Republics.

Q: When it’s time to start reading the nonfiction submissions for a literary journal, what’s your process?

If I think a piece is worth while, I’ll read it a couple of times, put it aside. Sometimes I’ll discuss it with other readers if I need to clarify my thinking about it. But, after the third reading, I’ll get stern with myself and make a decision. Editor Steven Leyva and I then confer about the final choices. We are fortunate to have two volunteer readers on our team, Emily Rich and Heidi Brotman, who critique submissions in this category, as well. This last round, Anthony Moll joined us as Guest Editor.

Q: I imagine there’s not necessarily something you’re “looking for,” a priori. But in your experience, what are the sorts of things in a memoir or essay that interest you and catch your attention?

I don’t remember who said this, but there’s a quote that goes something like “the pleasure of reading a personal essay lies in the enjoyment we get from the well-ordered thoughts of another’s mind.” I find that to be true, and I am often drawn to voices that, at the very least, seem to have full knowledge of themselves in the stories they tell. Of course, the usual things are important too — a hook in the introduction, plot, characterization, climax, resolution of conflict and ending — all those are essential to works of creative nonfiction, memoir, and biography.

Q: How quickly in reading a piece do you generally know if it’s something you want to publish, or not?

Immediately. It’s incredible how quickly as a reader you develop an instinct about a submission. Sometimes you can work through the bits that strike you as emotionally false, but other times, the issue is not the narrative but the writer. People feel more license in fiction, but in anything autobiographical, people tend to deploy fiction for only one reason, and it’s usually not to enrich or complicate the characters on the page. In other words, it’s like literary airbrushing. The result is that there are emotional gaps. Sometimes it’s fun to do the work of filling in those gaps. Other times it feels lazy and deceitful. Of course, there are some works in which the story and writing are so strong that we know immediately that the submission will be among our finalists. We rarely make a decision until the submission period ends and we have had a chance to review all the works.

Q: Do you work with writers to improve a submission that you would like to publish, or do you generally accept as is or reject entirely?

Some submissions you have to reject entirely. It’s not always worth wading into typos, or trying to sort out messy narratives. Some submissions suffer from a lack of introspection, or a self-consciousness. Some, from too little of the latter. But perfecting the the kind of writing we publish is about clarifying the writer’s vision of their own story, and helping them to find narrative meaning beyond the biographical details. That’s work you can’t do without the writer, and so when I believe in a piece of writing I’m often excited to work with its author. Its wonderful and very satisfying when a good story can be sharpened into something impactful.

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Concerning Craft: To the Writer Who Is Not Writing

This guest post comes from Alicia Mountain. Her poem, “Without Drawing the Blinds,” appeared in LPR‘s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Mountain is the author of the collection High Ground Coward (University of Iowa Press), which won the Iowa Poetry Prize, and the chapbook Thin Fire (BOAAT Press). She is a lesbian poet, critic, and educator based in Denver and New York. Keep up with her at aliciamountain.com and @HiGroundCoward.

Hello, Writer.

I know that doesn’t sound like your name right now. It did for a while. When people would ask what you do or what you’re studying you’d say, “well, I write! I’m a writer.” But now that the words aren’t coming, you might feel like you aren’t entitled to your name, like you aren’t earning it. I’m writing to tell you that’s not the case.

So you haven’t written much of anything at all lately. Sometimes a little scrap of an image or a phrase comes along. Sometimes you press it into the pages of your notebook like a foreign leaf. Most days you’re stuck, or busy with the logistics and practicalities of living. Guilt tugs at your sleeve and it’s hard to shake.

Of course, this isn’t the first time you’ve hit a dry spell, but it hasn’t gone on this long before. You’re wondering when the rain will come, if it ever will.

I’m writing to tell you that this is the rain.

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Considering Craft: Adapting From a Whirlwind to a Calm Breeze

This guest post comes from Carrie Conners. Her poem, “Unchained,” appeared in LPR‘s Winter Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Conners, originally from West Virginia, lives in Queens, New York, and teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at LaGuardia CC-CUNY. Her poetry has appeared in Cider Press Review, Steel Toe Review, Aji Magazine, Right Hand Pointing, Rhino Poetry, and the Monarch Review, among other publications. She is also a poetry reader for Epiphany magazine.

The last eight years have been a whirlwind. Well, to be precise, seven of the last eight years have been a whirlwind. I defended my dissertation at the University of Wisconsin in June 2010, moved from Madison to New York City in August of that year, and started as an Assistant Professor of English at LaGuardia CC-CUNY in September. Since then I’ve enjoyed developing my teaching of literature, creative writing, and composition with students and colleagues at LaGuardia while exploring the city and learning to negotiate the subway. (Confession: I still consult a subway app on my phone and would still be lost in the Village if it weren’t for Google Maps.) Working toward tenure is a bit like juggling on a tightrope. Negotiating teaching responsibilities with college, union, and committee service while trying to carve out time to write and publish is no easy feat, especially when working to produce both scholarly and creative writing and, you know, attempting to have a life and maintain relationships. So, after I was granted tenure and approved for a year-long sabbatical fellowship leave to complete a research project, I was presented with a new challenge: how to adjust to having time, how to adapt from a whirlwind to a calm breeze.

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