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The National Book Foundation announced the finalists for its annual National Book Awards this week. The selection of finalists follows last month’s longlist announcement, the first time in the foundation’s sixty-four-year history that such a list has been published.

The finalists in fiction are Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers (Scribner); Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland (Knopf); James McBride, The Good Lord Bird (Riverhead); Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge (Penguin); and George Saunders, Tenth of December (Random House).

The finalists in poetry are Frank Bidart, Metaphysical Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Lucie Brock-Broido, Stay, Illusion (Knopf); Adrian Matejka, The Big Smoke (Penguin); Matt Rasmussen, Black Aperture (Louisiana State University Press); and Mary Szybist, Incarnadine (Graywolf Press).

The finalists in nonfiction are Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (Knopf); Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt); George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 (Norton); and Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief (Knopf).

Also new from the foundation is The Contenders: Excerpts from the 2013 National Book Award Finalists, a free National Book Award eBook series available for download from the foundation’s website in a variety of formats.

Visit the website to read more about the finalists, and to see the selections in the category of young people’s literature. Selections in each of the four categories were made by a panel of judges comprised of five writers and literary professionals.

The winners will be announced at the sixty-fourth annual National Book Awards Benefit Dinner and Ceremony in New York City on November 20, which will be streamed live on the Foundation’s website. Winners will receive $10,000; all finalists will receive $1,000.

P&W-supported writer Charles Alexander is a poet, bookmaker, and founder/director of Chax Press. He is the author of five full-length books of poetry and ten chapbooks, and the editor of a critical work on the state of the book arts in America. His most recent book of poetry is Pushing Water, published by Cuneiform Press. Some Sentences Look for Some Periods, a chapbook, has just been released by Little Red Leaves. He has taught literature and writing at Naropa University, the University of Arizona, and elsewhere. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, with his partner, the painter Cynthia Miller.

Charles Alexander





What makes your press unique?

I might say, with Frank O’Hara, that we are “trying to keep it somewhere between mess and message,” i.e. while we have an overall purpose to support a broad range of innovative American poetry, the books happen because something grabs me. I have been asked how I can reconcile Chax Press’s interest in both the poetics of Black Mountain and that of language poetry; I see no contradiction in that reach, but rather an openness to various forms.

We also show our roots, i.e. that we began publishing books with handset type, printed on the Vandercook Press. We still publish such books, along with a lot more trade paperback books of terrific poetry.

Another fact that makes us unique: Chax has never offered a prize, and has almost never submitted our books for prizes, because we don’t believe that competition and recognition (of that variety) are what it’s all about.
 
What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?

The work of Linh Dinh seems to me some of the most creative and challenging poetry of our time. I am so glad we have been able to publish three of his books, including The Deluge, an anthology of new Vietnamese poetry, which he edited.

And of course, it doesn't hurt to look at recent books on our shelves by Alice Notley (Reason and Other Women), Maureen Owen (Edges of Water), Lisa Samuels (Anti M), and Will Alexander (Inside the Earthquake Palace), among others.

Plus, I get to work with young interns with terrific ideas.

As a book artist trained in letterpress printing, hand papermaking, and bookbinding, what are your thoughts on how e-books and new technologies are changing our concept of the book?

Books happen more quickly, get to people more quickly, and are more ever-present in our increasingly electronic lives. There is a lot of good about this, though I sometimes think people are reading bits and pieces more—songs rather than albums, greatest hits more than a poet’s deep immersion in a project. One terrific thing is that more young people are publishing works in new ways. As Charles Olson wrote in “The Kingfishers,” “what does not change/is the will to change.”
    
How do you prepare for a reading (especially if a reader’s experience of the text is linked with the book as a medium)?

While a book may have an intimate relationship with the form of a work, it can never be the defining form for that work. A live reading brings out something else entirely. When I give readings, I do not assume that the audience has read my work. I’m often surprised that they have, but I think a poet has to be attuned to that moment’s creation.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?

So much! The word rouses the spirits of individuals, who then work and act in the community. Works of art in language challenge people to understand how language and life interact. Chax Press grew out of my practice as a poet and my sense of community with other poets. Its purpose has always been to contribute to a very wide community, one that is spread out in the present and that goes back deeply in time, forming something like what the poet Robert Duncan might have called a “grand collage.”

But let's get specific about community. It takes some very special people. My partner, Cynthia Miller, has been beside me all but the first year of Chax Press, and has become the artist for the press, a board member, my studio mate, and much more. Tenney Nathanson is simply one of the best poets I have ever known or read; he has also been a mainstay on the Chax board and in my life. Tim Trace Peterson exquisitely edits EOAGH, which is a web partner with Chax. Other members of the local community that have made Chax what it is include Barbara Henning, Lisa Cooper Anderson, Steven Salmoni, Karen Brennan, the late Hassan Falak, Anne Bunker, Samuel Ace, Jefferson Carter, and many more.

On the Chax Press website, it says “Chax press publishes writing that does not take things for granted—things like ‘what is a poem,’ ‘what is an author,’ or ‘what does it mean to read.’” Have your experiences as a writer, publisher, and bookmaker helped answer any of these questions for you?

I remember Jerome Rothenberg once writing that poetry must keep asking the questions that cannot be answered. If “what is a poem?” ever has a definitive answer, I don't know that I'd like to write poems anymore. I love it that we are always extending language, extending the possible answers to these questions. The poem, questions about author and authority, and reading remain essential to my life and work.

Photo: Charles Alexander. Credit: Cybele Knowles.
Support for Readings/Workshops events in Tucson 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.

People often collect strange things for unknown reasons: ceramic elves from Europe, antique trout fishing lures, bamboo backscratchers from around the world. What we collect often reveals our idiosyncrasies, and therefore our true natures. Recall someone in your life who collected something intriguing or odd. Try to define the attraction, and in the process, bring that person to life.

Eleanor Catton was awarded the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday for The Luminaries, an epic novel set in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Catton, twenty-eight, is the youngest person to ever receive the prize.

Born in Canada and raised in Christchurch, New Zealand, Catton began writing the book, her second novel, at age twenty-five. The previous youngest recipient of the award, Ben Okri, won the prize in 1991 at age thirty-two. At 848 pages, The Luminaries (published by Granta in Britain and Little, Brown in the U.S.) is also the longest novel to win the award. Catton is only the second person from New Zealand to win.

Eleanor CattonThe prize was announced at a ceremony in London’s Guildhall. Chair of judges Robert Macfarlane called the book a “dazzling work, luminous, vast” with an “extraordinarily gripping” narrative. “The Luminaries is a novel you pan, as if for gold, and the returns are huge,” Macfarlane said. “Maturity is evident in every sentence, in the rhythms and balances. It is a novel of astonishing control.”
 
Catton beat out five other finalists for the prize: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo; Harvest by Jim Crace; A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki; The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri; and The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin. According British betting site Ladbrokes, Crace was the favorite to win. Catton will receive £50,000, or about $80,000.

It’s been a few good years for historical fiction, Hilary Mantel having won the prize both in 2009 and 2012 for Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, respectively, the first two books in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, the Booker has been awarded annually for forty-five years to a novelist from the United Kingdom, Ireland, or the British Commonwealth. Last month, however, the Booker Prize Foundation announced that, beginning in 2014, the prize would be open to all novels written in English and published in the United Kingdom, regardless of the author’s nationality.

In total, 151 books were nominated for this year’s prize. The winner is selected by the judging panel on the day of the ceremony.

Our characters reveal themselves through their actions—not only in dramatic scenes that involve death, injury, or heartache, but in small, subtle ways too. Show how a character in your fiction eats. Is the character’s demeanor ravenous and paranoid or slow and sophisticated? How your character eats, appreciates, and relates to food reveals much about his or her upbringing, emotional state, and intellectual disposition.

Life is about relationships. As with everything in life, all relationships end for various reasons. Think about a relationship that you valued that has ended—a friend, a lover, a family member. Write a poem that encapsulates your sense of loss and appreciation and how this particular person impacted your life. The power of poetry transcends everything that ends.

P&W-supported poet Koon Woon, October’s Writer in Residence, was born in a timeless village in China in 1949. In 1960 he immigrated to Washington State, first to the logging town of Aberdeen, then to Seattle, where he now resides. He turned to poetry while he was a mathematics and philosophy student coping with mental illness. Later he attended the workshops of Nelson Bentley at the University of Washington. At the age of forty-eight, Koon’s first book, The Truth in Rented Rooms, was published by Kaya Press. 

My most recent reading in Seattle—a production of the Chrysanthemum Literary Society with support from Poets & Writers, featuring several Kaya Press writers—took place at two venues: Elliott Bay Book Company and Bruce Lee’s gravesite.

Before the reading, I met Kaya Press editor Sunyoung Lee in the Chinatown-International District, and we went to the Mon Hei Bakery for “egg tarts,” a type of egg custard and the title of one of my poems about bicultural adaptation. We had tea in Styrofoam cups at an economy cake shop, followed by wonton noodles at Mike’s Noodle House, across from the Grand Pavilion at Hing Hay Park. That site appears in my poem as the place pigeons flock and the orphans of the world meet.

When Sunyoung and I were fortified, we had three more missions for the day.

The first was the aforementioned pilgrimage to Lakeview Cemetery at the peak of Capitol Hill. We found the gravesites of Bruce Lee and his son Brandon, and Sunyoung unexpectedly asked me to read a poem. I read “Fortune Telling” from my book The Truth in Rented Rooms, a poem about my father and the hard-working Chinese immigrants of his time. As I read, planes flew overhead and rain began to fall. The Chinese say that Heaven answers by releasing precipitation. We drank wine and poured some for Bruce and Brandon Lee.



I found my own parents’ tombstones. They were simple restaurant operators, but they are buried alongside members of the Locke clan, the old Seattle family that produced the current Ambassador to China, the Honorable Gary Locke.

We caught a bus to Elliott Bay Book Company for our second mission, a reading at the world-famous bookstore. The reading was animated and diverse. Some of our poets read about biracial and adoptee identities; two publishers were represented. Thad Rutkowski came all the way from New York City. I read about how an emperor and I had discussed the mechanics of winning an election in my inner-city room. In poetry, nothing is impossible. The audience was a wonderful cross section of people, from world-class translators to walk-ins at the bookstore.

The day was an example of literary teamwork: Kaya’s resources plus my suggestions and organization and P&W’s support. Previously, P&W enabled me to bring Jack and Adelle Foley and John Holbrook to the Richard Hugo House literary center. Featuring out-of-town writers allows for literary cross-fertilization and makes Seattle a truly cosmopolitan city. These readings and workshops help make the world smaller and foster understanding among cultures.

For our final mission that day, we retired to a sumptuous feast at Hing Loon Restaurant in Chinatown.

Photo: Koon Woon reads with Beacon Bards at the Station coffee shop in Seattle. Credit: Greg Bem.
Support for Readings/Workshops events in Seattle 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.

Suzanne Rancourt blogs about her P&W funded workshops with many underserved populations. Suzanne Rancourt is pursuing her Doctorate at the US accredited European Graduate School in Expressive Arts: Therapy, Coaching, Consulting & Education as well as a Chemical Dependency Counselor certification. She holds an MFA in writing, MS in Educational Psychology, AWA and CAGS. Suzanne draws from her Native American culture and military service (USMC, USA) in her arts practice and workshops. She has nonfiction work, The Bear That Stands forthcoming in the Journal of Military Experience, with recent work translated by Beatrice Machet. Her writing has been published in numerous journals, is used widely in schools, and transposed into the successful project, On Her Shoulders - a play about nine female veterans. Suzanne is a Managing Editor for Blue Streak - A Journal of Military Poetry. Suzanne has an upcoming P&W funded workshop open to female vets from all eras November 2, 2013 at the Stratton VA Medical Center, Albany, NY. Her award winning book, Billboard in the Clouds, is now carried by nupress.northwestern.

For several years I have had the good fortune of receiving funding from Poets & Writers' Readings/Workshops Program. These opportunities have taken me into prisons, veterans hospitals, homeless shelters for women and children of domestic violence, survivors of Traumatic Brain Injuries, drug and alcohol substance abuse recovery groups, young, inner city girls, YWCA’s, Military Experience and the Arts symposium, and more. I often get people emailing me asking about my use of writing in the field of Expressive/Creative Arts Therapy.

Of course, I recall my first attempts twenty or so years ago trying to explain to various academics my ideas. Neuroscience and brain chemistry fields really didn’t exist then, so usually my ideas were received with a raised eyebrow, leery glances, and silence. My first writing professor, Leonard Gilley, always said that perseverance was a writer’s mainstay. I continued to seek and cultivate my voice as a writer and in so doing I was met with profound adversity, and opportunities.

I focused on being my “authentic” self and in so doing embarked on a journey that led to Pat Schneider and her Amherst Writers and Artists method of facilitating writing workshops. By then I had already acquired two Masters Degrees with education in writing and psychology. I knew a good thing when I felt it. The AWA method, to use some of Pat’s phrasing, 1. is non hierarchical, 2. is experiential, 3. is a strengths based model, 4. can be used with all people regardless of age, religion, lifestyle, culture, cognitive levels, etc, 5. meets the writer/learner where they are at, 6. the facilitator takes the same risks as the participants, 7. it is NOT psychotherapy.

I continued to educate myself and learn from each participant in every one of my groups. I began to realize the changes occurring within participants and myself, not just the cathartic stuff, but the physiological things. For example, prior to a writing spree I may become highly agitated and then sit and write for hours or days. What’s that about? I wanted to know more. Expressive Arts counseling requires that we delve into our own Kafka-esque realities and for me that meant using my primary modality - writing. The change occurs in the process of the art making. Find the surprise.

Since this is to be a relatively short blog post, I won’t give you the full Monty but let’s say the bus most recently stopped off at my military service years. In 2012,  a young Iraq veteran, Travis Martin, followed his Authentic self and created The Journal of Military Experience. Their dedication in using the arts for helping each other, bettering our worlds and documenting our experiences is beyond profound. Each writer writes for their own reason with some discovering a knack that they cultivate into a well honed craft. Ironically, words can’t fully describe how much being reconnected with veterans has helped me. Resonance and resiliency; Perhaps those two words can give you an idea.

Writing transports the artist to someplace. That’s why many of us write. Writing as an Expressive Arts / Creative Arts therapeutic modality is serious business. You are accessing memories, emotions, activating neural pathways that can lead to change with the appropriate guidance and support. There are specific practices that we follow in our daily living, and our continued passion to seek, learn, experience and become more competent in our profession; to be a better human. Be Authentic.

Photo:  Suzanne S. Rancourt.  Photo Credit: Donna Davidson

Support for Readings/Workshops in New York is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Canadian short story writer Alice Munro has won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature. Munro, eighty-two, is the first Canadian writer and only the thirteenth woman to win the award.

Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, made the announcement today in Stockholm, calling Munro a "master of the contemporary short story." Munro, who lives in Clinton, Ontario, and whose work often deals with small-town life and the complicated relationships between women and men, announced earlier this year that she may be retiring. Her fourteenth story collection, Dear Life, was published in 2012 by Knopf.

One of the most prestigious prizes in the world, the Nobel Prize is given to a writer for a body of work, rather than a single book. The winner receives eight million Swedish kronor, or approximately $1.2 million.

Recent winners of the prize include Chinese writer Mo Yan, in 2012; Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, in 2011; Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, in 2010; and the Romanian-born German novelist and essayist Herta Müller, in 2009.

Our homes are extensions of our souls: the vibrant oil painting of a French villa hanging in the dining room, the tattered couch stained by a child’s bowl of ice cream in the den, the dead, blackened peace lily on an empty bookshelf. Write about the home you were raised in. Focus on the decorations, the furniture, and the items that reveal the most about the people who lived among them. In our homes, everything means something.

Pets are playing an increasingly important role in the lives of many people and families in our society. Pets offer companionship, unconditional love, or simply represent a welcome living force in our imperfect homes. Write a scene where an animal or pet stops a character from feeling lonely, stressed, or on the brink of madness. Explore the complex, but very deep and real, relationship between animals and people.

Starting next year, the London–based Man Booker Prize—whose 2013 winner will be announced next week—will be expanded to include all books written in English.

The prize has been given since 1969 for books of fiction written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, the British Commonwealth, or the Republic of Ireland. The expansion will make all books written and published in English, by authors from any country, eligible for nomination.

While the announcement, made last week on the Man Booker website by Foundation Chair Jonathan Taylor, has drawn a flurry of mixed reviews, the Foundation insists that by expanding the prize it will be “embracing the freedom of English in its versatility, in its vigour, in its vitality and in its glory wherever it may be. We are abandoning the constraints of geography and national boundaries.”

Eligible books must still be published in the United Kingdom, and UK publishers must submit titles for consideration. A few other submission guidelines have also changed.
 
The 2013 shortlist, which was announced in September, was chosen from a longlist released in July. The winner, who will be announced on October 15, will receive 50,000 British pounds, or approximately $75,000.

The Man Booker Foundation has also partnered with Apple to host a series of free podcasts featuring readings and interviews with the shortlisted authors.

Collisions spark creativity. Colors collide to form new colors. Opposing ideas create an inspired argument. Friction makes fire. Write a poem that combines two unrelated entities in your life: Imagine your birth certificate under a decaying woodpile, your mother-in-law clenching spark plugs, a bluebird singing in your freezer. Push your imagination. The words will follow.

P&W-supported poet Koon Woon, October’s Writer in Residence, was born in a timeless village in China in 1949. In 1960 he immigrated to Washington State, first to the logging town of Aberdeen, then to Seattle, where he now resides. He turned to poetry while he was a mathematics and philosophy student coping with mental illness. Later he attended the workshops of Nelson Bentley at the University of Washington. At the age of forty-eight, Koon’s first book, The Truth in Rented Rooms, was published by Kaya Press

It might sound like a stretch, but poetry saved my life—along with the care of psychotherapists, the kindness of my dear friend Betty Irene Priebe, and a continuous parade of literary friends.

Even though I was appointed literary chairman in high school, I could not attend the meetings after school because I had to help out in my family’s Chinese-American restaurant. I tried to study mathematics and philosophy in college, but mental illness was sneaking up on me. I had a full-blown psychotic episode in the streets of San Francisco at age twenty-seven, and was involuntarily hospitalized. I was shouting alarming verses on Stockton and Vallejo Streets at the edge of Chinatown, just a few blocks from the City Lights Bookstore.

I had no idea then that City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti would one day blurb my first book, The Truth in Rented Rooms, and sell it in his bookstore. (P&W has supported both Ferlinghetti and the store over the years.)

I wrote because I could assuage my mental illness by clarifying to myself my feelings and perceptions of reality. My first publication was “Goldfish,” which appeared in a literary tabloid called Bellowing Ark, started by a fellow student of poet Nelson Bentley at the University of Washington. The poem is about an animal perceived as a regal creature admired by emperors in daylight; but at night, the goldfish turns into a carp, a sharp, silver dagger conspiring to take their lives.

Many academic poets have at least a full-length book out with a prize (and also a price) attached, and a teaching position. But my relationship to poetry always felt more personal than professional—more intense, more weighty. For me, poetry was an attempt to regain my sanity. (This struggle was later collected in a chapbook, The Burden of Sanity, first published by Joe Musso’s Hellp Press.)

Now, at age sixty-four, my second book, Water Chasing Water, is out, thanks to editor Sunyoung Lee and Kaya Press, the world’s foremost English-language publisher of literature of the Asian diaspora. My books have found their way into universities.

I never set out to become a published poet. I entered the literary world through the back door, writing to channel my emotions instead of acting out in the streets. One can almost say I had a utilitarian reason to write poetry. But I am not an armchair poet. I became active in the literary community--active enough to form a literary press and to edit and publish a poetry magazine for twenty years. I also judge contests and sponsor poetry readings and workshops, several of which have been supported by Poets & Writers, Inc.

This month, I will blog about the poetry scene in Seattle and some of the poets and facilitators of readings and workshops. Increasingly, Seattle is becoming a thriving literary community that deserves the nation’s attention.

Photo: Koon Woon reads with Beacon Bards at the Station coffee shop in Seattle. Credit: Greg Bem.
Support for Readings/Workshops events in Seattle 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.

The Rona Jaffe Foundation has announced the winners of its nineteenth annual Writers’ Awards, given to emerging women writers. The program offers grants of $30,000 each to writers of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.

The 2013 winners are fiction and nonfiction writer Tiffany Briere of San Diego, California; fiction writer Ashlee Crews of Durham, North Carolina; nonfiction writer Kristin Dombek of Brooklyn, New York; poet Margaree Little of Tuscon, Arizona; fiction writer Kirstin Valdez Quade of Palo Alto, California; and nonfiction writer Jill Sisson Quinn of Scandinavia, Wisconsin. Visit the website for the winners’ complete bios.

The Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Awards program was established by author Rona Jaffe in 1995 “in recognition of the special contributions women writers make to our culture and society.” Since the program began, the Foundation has awarded more than $1.5 million to women writers in the early stages of their careers. Past recipients have included Rachel Aviv, Eula Biss, Lan Samantha Chang, Rivka Galchen, ZZ Packer, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, and Tracy K. Smith. In addition to providing time to write, the program also offers assistance for things like research, travel, and child care. Nominations for the annual awards are solicited by the Foundation from writers, editors, critics, and other literary professionals.

Rona Jaffe (1931–2005) was the author of sixteen books, including Class Reunion, Family Secrets, The Road Taken, and The Room-Mating Season. Her 1958 bestselling debut novel, The Best of Everything, was reissued by Penguin in 2005.

Listen to a podcast of the 2013 winners reading from their work during a recent awards ceremony at New York University.

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