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Poets & Writers Blogs

The recent announcement that the shell of Cadbury’s crème egg will no longer be made with their signature dairy milk chocolate has been met with great dismay by those who count the confection among their favorite treats. Has one of your favorite treats undergone a similar alteration? Maybe your local pizza place changed up their classic marinara sauce, or the coffee shop where you get your daily latte now uses a sweeter brand of soy milk. Write about why this alteration had an effect on your life and what you did to overcome the change.

Glitter bombing is an act of protest in which activists throw glitter on specific targets at public events. You can also “glitter bomb” people through the mail—many websites offer  to ship your enemies spring-loaded letters filled with the invasive craft supply, for a nominal fee. This week, write a scene where one of your characters gets glitter bombed. Consider the location, the method used, the perpetrator, and how this character would respond to being covered in glitter. Was this act just a harmless prank, or something more serious? 

The Northeast is getting pummeled by a potentially historic storm today, which has accumulated many ominous names. This week, write a poem about an imaginary, absurdly catastrophic blizzard. You can call it whatever you like, but here are some suggestions to help guide you: “snowmageddon,” “snowzilla,” and the bone-chilling “snownado.” What is special about this storm, giving it the potential to be the storm of the century?  

Houston native and University of Texas Longhorn Gwendolyn Zepeda began her writing career on the web in 1997 as the first Latina blogger. Since that time, Zepeda has published three critically-acclaimed novels through Hachette and four award-winning children’s books, a short story collection, and two volumes of poetry through Arte Publico Press. She is Houston’s first poet laureate. Zepeda blogs about her P&W–supported University of Houston reading this past fall for Arte Publico Press.

Gwendolyn Zepeda

A year and a half into my term as Houston’s first poet laureate, I’d been invited to give plenty of presentations about “being Houston’s first poet laureate.” For a recent reading at the University of Houston’s Honors College, however, the marketing department of Arte Publico Press asked me to put a new spin on it. They suggested I talk about growing up in the Sixth Ward (which was an impoverished area not known for producing novelists or poets), and then explain how I became a writer.

You know how, when figuring out how to explain your life to a stranger, you see your life from new angles? That was what happened to me as I prepared for this reading, several hours before it began. I typed an outline about my relatives who didn’t go to college but constantly read and told stories, the epistolary notes I passed in class, and the coveted bail bond office typewriter on which I typed my first poems. It occurred to me that art was the most exalted thing in my family, whether or not we all realized it.

You know how you worry, before each reading, whether anyone will actually attend? I always think of the Onion headline: "Author Promoting Book Gives It Her All Whether It's Just 3 People Or A Crowd Of 9 People." Happily, this reading was almost full in a room that seated fifty. There was a mix of people: students, professors, elderly alumni, a few of my friends. I was introduced to a dean and a women’s club.

You know how, with some audiences, you have immediate good chemistry? They’re in the mood to listen and there are good acoustics in the room, and you find yourself making eye contact with various faces, and it encourages you to be bold and witty and maybe read the piece you hadn’t planned on? That happened to me at this reading. There was a smiling, nodding young man who seemed to have grown up in a family similar to mine. There was a woman with shining eyes who seemed to be a writer herself. There were twentysomethings in the back who were obviously there for class credit, but who seemed pleasantly surprised. There was the dean, whose eyebrows rose at certain words and egged me on.

Afterwards, I signed books for readers, two of whom said they’d been following my work since I was only a blogger. I posed for photos with people who asked, holding my book so they’d later remember who I was. After that, I walked alongside my Arte Publico Press comrades as they rolled their equipment to the parking lot.

And after that, in my car, I reflected on the reading, my writing career so far, and my life in general. They were good thoughts. I was happy.

Photo: Gwendolyn Zepeda. Credit: Aleksander Micovic.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Houston is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Submissions are currently open for the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Literary Awards. The annual prize is given for a short story written by a U.S. writer. The winner will receive $3,500 and possible publication in the Chicago Tribune’s weekly literary supplement, Printers Row Journal. Four finalists will each receive $1,000, and five runners-up will each receive $500.

Using the online submission system, submit a story of up to 8,000 words by Saturday, January 31. There is no entry fee. A panel of fiction writers and literary professionals will judge; the winners will be announced by June 1.

Ben Hoffman won the 2014 prize for his story “This Will All Be Over Soon,” about a man coping with the kidnapping of his wife. After four rounds of judging, judges Yiyun Li, Peter Orner, and Roxana Robinson selected Hoffman’s story from twenty-four hundred entries, almost double the number of entries in 2013. Other recent winners include Erika Schmidt, Jeremy T. Wilson, and Billy Lombardo.

Established in 1981 by Chicago Magazine and administered by the Chicago Tribune since 1986, the Nelson Algren Short Story Award has helped launch the careers of writers such as Stuart Dybek, Kim Edwards, and Louise Erdrich. The prize is named after American fiction writer Nelson Algren (1909–1981), who wrote several novels including The Man With the Golden Arm (1949) and A Walk on the Wild Side (1956).

Photo: Nelson Algren (credit Stephen Deutch/Chicago Tribune)

In the story you’re writing, is one of your characters confronting a major obstacle? Think reasonably about the obstruction, and whether your character is equipped to push on through. Some obstacles can’t be overcome without retreating back to the start. What does your character notice now that he or she missed before? What side streets and detours were not on the map the first time around? Write about this unexpected journey. 

The finalists for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced yesterday. Poet Claudia Rankine, novelist Marilynne Robinson, and memoirist Lacy M. Johnson are among the thirty finalists for the awards, which are given in six categories: poetry, fiction, nonfiction, autobiography, biography, and criticism.

Rankine’s latest poetry collection, Citizen: An American Lyric, was nominated in both poetry and criticism, the first time in the awards’ forty-year history that a book has received nominations in two categories. “Citizen is a book of prose poetry whose inventive composition and topical content invite readers to consider different avenues toward the urgent conversation about race and politics in America,” said Rigoberto Gonzalez, chair of the NBCC poetry committee. “Rankine’s appearance on two separate categories is a testament to her book’s complexity, narrative reach and artistry.” Meanwhile, Phil Klay, whose debut short story collection, Redeployment, won the National Book Award in November, will receive the John Leonard first book prize. The award for lifetime achievement will be given to Toni Morrison.

The poetry finalists are Saeed Jones’s Prelude to Bruise (Coffee House Press), Willie Perdomo’s The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon (Penguin Books), Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press), Christian Wiman’s Once in the West (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and the late Jake Adam York’s Abide (Southern Illinois University Press).

The fiction finalists, all novels, are Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea (Riverhead), Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead), Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press), Marilynne Robinson’s Lila (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and Lily King’s Euphoria (Atlantic Monthly Press).

The finalists in autobiography are Blake Bailey’s The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait (Norton), Roz Chast’s graphic memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury), Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side (Tin House), Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure (Random House), and Meline Toumani’s There Was and There Was Not (Metropolitan Books)

For a full list of finalists in each category, visit the National Book Critics Circle website.

The awards, founded in 1974 at the Algonquin Hotel and considered among the country's most prestigious literary honors, are the only prizes of their kind, selected by a jury of working critics and book-review editors. The 2014 winners will be presented at a ceremony on March 12 at the New School in New York City that is free and open to the public. 

Photo: Claudia Rankine (credit Elizabeth Weinberg/New York Times)

Former wildland firefighter Ruth Nolan was born in San Bernardino, California and has lived in the neighboring Mojave Desert and Coachella Valley for most of her life since. She is Professor of English and Creative Writing at College of the Desert and is a prolific poet and writer whose work has appeared, and is forthcoming, in the Rattling Wall, Riverside Press Enterprise-Inlandia Literary Journeys, Tin Cannon, and New California Writing (Heyday Books, 2011). She is editor of the critically-acclaimed anthology, No Place for a Puritan: The Literature of California's Deserts (Heyday Books, 2009) and the winner of the Mojave River Review Magazine nonfiction chapbook contest for California Drive. An avid California desert advocate, lecturer, conservationist, and literary scholar, she has taught writing workshops for the Desert Institute at Joshua Tree National Park, the California State University Desert Studies Center, the University of California, Riverside Extension, and the (In) Visible Memoir Project. Nolan earned her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts in the University of California, Riverside Low Residency Program and her MA in English/Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University. She lives in Palm Desert, where she teaches, and writes, and often sneaks away into the desert to hike. She is the proud mother of daughter, Tarah, and overjoyed by new baby grandson, Simon.

Ruth Nolan

What are your reading do’s?
My reading do’s are: Read from the heart and try to remain humble. For me, a reading is a form of ceremony, one that involves audience participation and allows for a sense of group and individual transformation. When I read, I’m sharing stories of places, people, and deep emotions that run as powerfully inside of me as the underground Mojave River in the desert. It’s my responsibility to the audience to evoke that as best I can. If not, I would honestly rather be out hiking in the desert than reading stuff I don’t believe in or wasting my audience’s precious time. I find it imperative to honor my audience, and fellow readers, and to do all that I can during my reading to hold and express the greatest respect for those who have taken the time to come hear me read.

…and your reading don’ts?
My No. 1 rule is don’t be an asshole. Never, ever, ever go more than the time limit you are asked to observe. If anything, less is more. Don’t abuse the audience. Don’t waste their time, or yours.

What’s the strangest comment you’ve received from an audience member?
Being told many times my writing is highly sexy and sexual. After one reading, a man approached me and smarmily told me that he was turned on by me, because when I’d read a certain poem, I’d moved my hips suggestively in perfect, sexy synchronicity with the contents of the sexy poem I was reading.  Ever since then, I’ve always tried to stand behind a podium when I read, and when I can’t, I am self-conscious about my hips, as silly as that sounds. I’ve had other people, men and women, tell me that my writing is very sexy. It’s always a shock to me to hear this because I don’t feel sexy or sexual at all when I’m reading. I feel like the nerdy, glasses-wearing thirteen-year-old I once was in junior high school. In retrospect, I do see that my writing is full of many sexual escapades, in one way or another. It’s just that I don’t personally relate to these experiences. I just write about them, and read about them, and get surprised and embarrassed when someone points it out to me after a reading. To this day, I’m not sure why that is, except that I’m functioning from some kind of writer disconnect. Maybe this disconnect is the reason I write: to connect that indiscernible and slippery gap between consciousness, identity, and experience.

What’s the craziest (or funniest, or most moving, or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve been part of?
Every event is memorable to me, and life-nurturing. However, there have been several funny, memorable, bizarre, and cosmic things that have happened at some of these readings and events over the years that particularly stand out. One moving and memorable experience was the time a homeless man walked into the Inlandia Writing Workshop at the downtown Riverside Library (which I cofounded and taught for five years from 2008-2012) saying he’d just gotten off the city bus and saw a sign for my workshop on the library window. He joined us for that workshop and wrote several amazing poems about his life.

Another memorable time was at the Poetry at the Peaks reading I helped coordinate and host, as part of the International United Nations/NYC Poets for Peace readings series. It was a late winter afternoon and attendance was high. We were in a window-filled room overlooking the San Jacinto Forest, and right as the reading started, snow started to fall outside, filtering beautifully through the mountain cloud-lit canopy, gracing our reading with hope and beauty.

I also recall the Poetry for Peace reading the following year in 2002 at Moorten’s Desert Botanical Gardens in Palm Springs, just as the United States controversially was about to begin bombing Iraq, and vitriolic, patriotic emotions were running high nationwide. I was interviewed by the Palm Springs news media, who goaded me with inflammatory questions about the purpose of our event, obviously trying to depict our event as a disrespectful, unpatriotic event. Our readers blew that out of the water with a powerful, transformational reading that celebrated the magic of healing words and verse.

And, of course, I’ve been lucky to have been part of some amazing readings and workshops that I’ve helped coordinate across the California deserts. In the balm of palm trees at Anza Borrego State Park one January, far out in the Mojave Desert at Death Valley, and bringing a small group of women writers together at Furnace Creek to write and hike on a warm October weekend. Then, there’s the unforgettable memory of Sal y Muerte, the fantastic writing workshop Poets & Writers sponsored on Dia de los Muertos in 2013 at the Salton Sea North Shore State Park. I’ll always be inspired by the fireside poetry reading and performance we held on the shore of the Salton Sea, which included some of my local College of the Desert students, and poets and writers from throughout Southern California and beyond.

How does giving a reading inform your writing and vice versa?
I can feel if I’m hitting the mark in my writing or if I’m full of shit and maybe would be better off hanging up that particular poem or part of a piece and going out for a hike in the Mojave, and then returning to make revisions. If I see or feel the audience shifting in their seats, I know it’s time to roll up my sleeves again. If I see or feel the audience leaning on the edges of their seats, if the room is completely silent, if I feel completely in the zone (as I did when I played my best games during my competitive tennis playing years), then I know I must be doing something right. Giving readings, both for myself at home and in public, is, for me, crucial to hearing my voice. I feel the energy of what I’ve written, feel the connection or disconnection in what I’m trying to do, and feel more connected to my own writing, and to the effect that it is having on any given audience. I feel it’s important to spare the audience. If they’re bored, I don’t feel it’s fair for me to waste their time listening just to be polite. I have an obligation to put on a show, to make their investment in hearing my writing matter to them. It’s vital to respect my audience and communicate with them in this sense.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
The value of literary programs for my community, the California deserts, which encompass twenty-five percent of the state of California geographically, is immeasurable. These programs connect the people in my ‘hood with an essential and much valued community building toolkit, across hundreds of mostly desolate but story rich miles of open spaces and crossroads of present and historical times. Here, literary programs bring people together to share their stories and offer the chance to articulate their experiences and insights with the literary community at large. They help us fill in our arid desert landscapes with the blessing of rain showers of words, bringing us together from far and wide to rejoice and celebrate.

Photo: Ruth Nolan   Credit: Pablo Aguila Photography

Major support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

There are certain words and phrases that are always used when discussing head colds, migraines, sprained ankles, and other ailments. This week, write a poem about an illness or injury without using the medical language commonly associated with it. For example, if you’re writing about a sinus infection, try avoiding the diagnostic terms “pressure” and “congestion,” and instead describe the symptoms using more metaphorical language. Have fun with it, like Ogden Nash did. 

How important is stability to you? Sometimes comfort and routine can stifle creativity, but too much risk and uncertainty may create anxiety. Write a personal essay examining how stable your life seems and whether you think the level of stability could be adjusted. Now might be the time to finally settle down and get to work, or to set off into uncharted territory. Tap into your instincts and listen to them.

This week, take a straightforward scene you’ve been working on and insert an awkward mistake made either by a major or minor character. You know the kind, in which you suddenly find yourself apologizing for walking in on a private conversation, and when backing out of the room, you knock over an expensive vase. Or perhaps an innocent typographical error causes an incredible uproar that, even once corrected, isn’t quickly forgotten. Use this mistake to forward the main plot, introduce a subplot, or inject some lighthearted slapstick into your narrative.

The finalists have been announced for the 2014 Story Prize. The annual award is given for a book of short fiction published in the previous year, and carries with it a $20,000 purse.

The three finalists are The Other Language (Pantheon) by Francesca Marciano, Thunderstruck (The Dial Press) by Elizabeth McCracken, and Bark (Knopf) by Lorrie Moore. The finalists were chosen from among 129 books published by 85 different publishers or imprints in 2014, marking a record number of submissions for the prize, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year.

For details on this year's finalists and their books, visit the Story Prize website. George Saunders won last year's prize for his collection Tenth of December. This is the first year since the award's inception, in 2004, that all three finalists have been women.

Founder Julie Lindsey and director Larry Dark selected the finalists. This year’s final judges—Boulder, Colorado–based bookseller Arsen Kashkashian, Center for Fiction director Noreen Tomassi, and author Laura van den Berg—will select the winner. The two runners-up will each receive $5,000.

The 2014 winner will be announced at an annual ceremony at the New School in New York City on March 4. The event is open to the public; tickets can be purchased at the New School box office or by phone at 212-229-5488.

Meanwhile, Kyle Minor’s second collection, Praying Drunk (Sarabande Books), was named the winner of the third annual Story Prize Spotlight Award, a $1,000 prize given for a short story collection worthy of additional attention. Dark and Lindsey annually select the Spotlight Award winner from among the regular pool of Story Prize entries. Listen to Minor read from Praying Drunk as part of Poets & Writers Magazine’s Page One podcast series.

Photos above, left to right: Francesca Marciano (credit Laura Sciacovelli), Elizabeth McCracken (credit Edward Carey), and Lorrie Moore (credit Zane Williams).

January can be a harsh month for most parts of the world. The wind howls over the frozen ground, through bare branches and near-deserted streets, fogged windows blurred as though forming a barrier to keep the icy world at bay. On days like these, how do you kindle the fire inside of you? What keeps you going, warms your spirits, and insulates you from the creeping chill? Write a poem to serve as kindling—verses with the power to comfort and warm your heart.

Bryn Chancellor was selected as the 2014 Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for fiction. Her story collection When Are You Coming Home? won the 2014 Prairie Schooner Book Prize and will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2015. Her short fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, Blackbird, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Phoebe, and elsewhere, and her current projects include two novels. She has received a Literary Arts Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts, a fellowship and a project grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Conference and Sewanee Writers’ Conference. A graduate of Vanderbilt University’s MFA program in fiction, she lives in Montevallo, Alabama, where she is an assistant professor at the University of Montevallo. A native of California who was raised in Arizona, Chancellor is married to artist Timothy Winkler.

The official WEX award letter from Poets & Writers arrived two weeks before I could tell anyone. For two weeks, I carried the letter, folded in quarters, in an inner zipped pocket of my purse, safe from rogue paper shredders or spontaneous toaster fires. I would take it out from the pocket in the mornings, as the Alabama sun snuck through the blinds, and I’d run my fingers over the words to make myself believe that it wasn’t some feverish insomniac dream. Then I folded the paper and tucked it away, as the world around me grew brighter.

Like most writers, I’m more familiar with another kind of letter, those with words such as: however, unfortunately, we’re sorry to inform you, please try us again. This letter, with its astonishing words—congratulations!, all-expenses-paid trip to New York City, a public reading, an honorarium, and a one-month residency at Jentel Artist Residency—well, no wonder I had to keep it close. Who could believe it? Not me. Certainly not my inner critic, who has all the charm of a paper cut: Oh, they must have made a mistake. It couldn’t be you; weird, frizzy-haired, middle-aged woman tapping out those stories. Puh-leese.

Believe it or not, I indeed went to New York City. I went with my carefully packed bag full of sales-rack clothes and one nice pair of shoes, my stomach tied in knots over a mostly finished novel that I wasn’t sure how to talk about, and terrified that everyone would take one look at me and voice my deepest writer fears: You? Ha! Hahahahahahaha!

Instead, I found kindness and generosity as luminous as the starry Grand Central ceiling. I found honest-to-God readers (many of whom are also writers or editors), toiling long hours and fighting the good fight, taking the time to talk with me about my work and the publishing world and the writing life. I crisscrossed the city by subway, by cab, and by foot, trying not to be gauche and gawp at the skyscrapers, at the everything. I shared great meals and coffee with great people, and I filled two tote bags with great books. I gave a reading at McNally Jackson, and I didn’t pass out at all. I found friendship and kinship with the wonderful poet Harry Moore, my fellow winner. I shared the stories with my husband at the end of day, up in my lovely hotel room, because once I said it aloud I could maybe make myself believe it. Then I folded those stories up and tucked them away into all of the weird, frizzy-haired, middle-aged pockets of mine.

No wonder I’m bursting at the seams with gratitude. To those instrumental in my WEX award—especially Maureen Egen, Victor LaValle, Elliot Figman, Lynne Connor, and the wondrous Bonnie Rose Marcus—and to all of those who offered up their time, words, wit, and wisdom, along with my ever-supportive family and friends: Thank you to the tip tops of the Alabama pines.

So much of the writing life centers on belief: making readers believe the magic on the page, making the publishing world believe in the work, and, perhaps the hardest, first believing in ourselves. Alas, my magic WEX experience can’t wave a wand and—poof!—solve such struggles, yet I know that I will always carry this award close. I will fold it away in the secret pocket of my writer’s heart, where I can pull it out when I need to remember: This is real. Someone once believed in you. Now it’s your turn.

Photo: (top) Bryn Chancellor. Photo Credit: Christy Whitney.

Photo (bottom) Bryn Chancellor. Photo Credit: Timothy Winkler.

This award is genrously supported by Maureen Egen, a member of the Poets & Writers Board of Directors, and retired Deputy Chairman and Publisher of Hachette Book Group, USA.

It’s been said that the difference between a master and a beginner is that, “the master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.” Whether it’s brewing coffee exactly the way you like it, or earning your black belt in a martial art, learning something new takes focus and dedication. Think about something you have mastered and write about the process you underwent to add this new skill to your repertoire. 

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