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Poets & Writers Blogs

Think about an important conclusion or insight that you've had at some point in your life but that took time to fully realize. It could be anything—the need to end a relationship, the decision not to pursue a certain career, or the hard truth about a life challenge. Write an essay structured around the many moments that led you to your final conclusion or insight. Consider using headings for each section, such as The First Time I Realized X, The Second Time I Realized X, etc.

Choose two people who you know well and write a detailed character description of each one. Next, change their gender, name, and physical traits. Begin a story with both characters standing on the platform of a train station, waiting for a train.

In this ongoing series, we talk to prize recipients about the ways in which winning literary awards has affected their work and writing life, what they’ve learned from winning, and what advice they might offer to writers applying for awards.

This installment features an interview with fiction writer Daniel Alarcón, author of the short story collection War by Candlelight (Harper, 2006), which was a finalist for the PEN-Hemingway Award, and Lost City Radio (Harper, 2007), which was named a Best Novel of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post, and won the 2009 International Literature Prize given by the House of World Culture in Berlin. Alarcón received the prestigious Whiting Award for fiction in 2004, and was named one of the New Yorker’s 20 under 40 in 2010. He is the associate editor of Etiqueta Negra, a literary quarterly published in his native Lima, Peru; the founder of Radio Ambulante, a Spanish-language storytelling podcast; and a contributing editor of Granta. His two forthcoming books—a novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, and a short story collection, The King Is Always Above The People—will be published by Riverhead Books in the fall of 2013 and 2014, respectively. Alarcón discusses how winning literary prizes has at times allowed him to write full-time and pay the bills, and has motivated him to keep writing.

Has winning literary prizes such as the Whiting Award changed your career? Were you able to put the prize money toward something specific, or did you make any important connections as a result of winning?

Winning prizes is nice, and yes, it has changed my career for the better, even before I realized I had “a career,” per se. The Whiting Award came before my first book had even been published, so it felt like an absurd and undeserved bit of good luck; but I can’t deny that it gave me some confidence to keep working. The piece the judges read was the opening fifty pages of my second book, Lost City Radio, and winning gave me some validation to push forward when I really had no idea what I was doing. By luck or coincidence, awards in my case have tended to come at key moments, just when I needed them to lift my spirits, to remind me that someone was reading, that someone appreciated what I was trying to do. As for the money, yeah, that helps too, but it never lasts. I’ve spent it all by now, but it kept me clothed and fed, the rent paid, at critical junctures. I feel like I should state the obvious: in many cases, this prize money isn’t extra money; it’s the only money. You might not have any other income for six months or a year. Economically, writing is a high-wire act (try getting a home loan as a self-employed novelist) and that’s not going to change unless something crazy happens. Prize money has meant the difference between having to work a real job and enjoying the luxury of writing full-time, or close to full-time. Prize money means being able to turn down teaching jobs. The money I’ve won was never used to go on vacation (I haven’t had one of those in years) or to start a restaurant or buy an Audi. I used it to pay rent and live, which sounds mundane, but there it is.

But sometimes winning isn’t everything. I first met Junot Díaz when we were both finalists for an award (which he won, naturally) and we’ve been friendly since. He’s a writer I’d always admired, and the “prize” at that point was meeting him, sharing a drink, and—crucially—beginning to think of myself as a colleague of writers of that caliber. I was a finalist for [the PEN-Hemingway Award for debut fiction] in 2006, which Yiyun Li won, and the more I’ve read of her work, the more I admire her and the prouder I am to have been a finalist alongside such a talent.

Has receiving awards, or being selected as a finalist, had an effect on the decisions you've made as a writer, or on the path you have chosen to take in your work?

No, not really. I’ve written stories, began and tossed out novels, tried my hand at narrative nonfiction, political reportage, investigative reporting, theater, graphic novels, and now radio storytelling in Spanish—and always done it according to whimsy. I do the things I like doing, and I realize this means I’m very fortunate. Maybe winning prizes has helped, I don’t know. Maybe certain editors will respond to my emails because they know they’ve heard my name somewhere, but you’d have to ask them about that.

What advice could you offer for writers looking to contests as a way to get their work into the world?

Contests have their place, and nowadays, when I serve as a judge, I try to read with the same openness, optimism, and excitement that I had when I was a younger writer, putting my work out there for the first time. I was jury member for the Aura Estrada Prize last year, and it was a real honor. I knew Aura, and there could be no better memorial for someone of her vision and potential than a prize like this one. I read those manuscripts and kept looking for something dynamic, something beautiful, something full of the same hope that is implicit in any sincere artistic pursuit. Most manuscripts didn’t pass muster, didn’t seem good enough to earn a prize with Aura’s name, but then I found it. When one voice managed to push through the clutter, it was incredibly exciting. The writer’s name was Majo Rodríguez. Look for her. That’s what prizes and contests can do. They put a writer on the map.

For more information on the work of Daniel Alarcón, visit his website at danielalarcon.com. On February 5 in New York City, Radio Ambulante will host a Benefit Evening of Latin American Storytelling featuring Alarcón, Junot Díaz, and Francisco Goldman, at 7:00 PM at the Instituto Cervantes at 211 E. 49th Street.

Choose any word from the dictionary and read its definitions. Write a poem using only the language of these definitions. Try repeating them in different combinations and using line break to create unexpected phrases. Experiment with how far you can push the limits of the language you're working with. Use the word you've chosen as the title of the poem.

PW-funded poet Camille Dungy blogs about the daily life of writers and the role Poets & Writers' Readings/Workshops program plays in that life. Dungy is a professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University. She has published three collections of poetry—Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the 2010 Crab Orchard Open Book Prize; Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press); and What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen Press).

Camille DungyThus far in this blog series, I've talked about how a two-page questionnaire distributed to writers whose events are co-sponsored by Poets & Writers directly engages some of the things writers do all day: We answer questions: We worry about whether we'll find an audience willing to read our answers.

This week, I want to talk about another thing a person who calls himself a writer must regularly accomplish: The writer must find time, somehow, to write.

How does a person who wants to be a writer find the time to write? There are so many responsibilities and distractions and interruptions in this world. How on heaven's earth (Where did that phrase come from? When did heaven get to also possess earth?) does a writer stay focused on the task at hand?

The final question on the two-page, salmon-colored questionnaire distributed to all writers who are paid to participate in a P&W co-sponsored event reads as follows: What was the impact of receiving support from Poets & Writers on your experience of this event, your career as a writer, your relationship with your audience, etc?

One way I interpret this question is that it asks what it means to be paid to talk about what I write.

Short answer: It means a lot.

More elaborate answer: It means my time is valued; my craft is valued; my words are valued; my relationship with the community to whom I am speaking has a value; that a community has taken the time to write a successful grant proposal to prove their dedication to a life of letters, and this has a value. When I receive a check for speaking to a community of people about writing, it supports me as I continue to seek answers, and it encourages me to work to write those answers down for other people to read.

I am not writing out of a desire to make loads of money. If I intended to dedicate my life to financial return, I would have gone into global finance. Those folks are storytellers too. I made a choice to get my poetic license because writing is sacred. It is necessary for my survival. In the same way I have to regularly make time to exercise my lower back and core muscles so the lumbar region of my spine doesn't give out and cause indescribable pain, I have to write regularly so the questions that fill my head don't bring me grief. It is an immense comfort to know I am not talking to myself, but I would write whether there was anyone to read what I wrote or not.

Writing is the means by which I come to understand myself. Writing is the means by which I come to understand my community, my world. Perhaps you know a runner, the sort who is not herself until she has logged her miles for the day. Though she may be on a business trip in a city far from home, before she heads to her morning meetings she has already logged eight-miles and can tell all the other traveling salesmen the layout of the town where they've stopped for the night. That is who I am in relationship to the page. I am lost without it. I find time to write because it is through writing that I find myself.

The impact of receiving support from Poets & Writers is the ability to hire a babysitter, or buy better writing equipment, or purchase meals that save me time and labor in the kitchen. The impact of receiving support from Poets & Writers is the affirmation that people are reading what I write. That affirmation keeps me going, sometimes, through the long lonely hours. The impact of receiving support from Poets & Writers is that I occasionally have to the opportunity to articulate to others why on heaven's earth I care so much about writing that I want to share my love of writing with the world. The impact of receiving support from Poets & Writers is the affirmation that the time I take to write has a value.

How does a writer find time to write? She comes to believe that the time she takes to write is precious and should be treated as such. Her community can support her in this. She also has to believe in herself.

Photo: Camille Dungy.  Photo credit: Marcia Wilson/Wide Vision Photography.

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

The Chicago Tribune is currently accepting submissions for its annual Nelson Algren Short Story Award. One winner will receive $3,500 and publication in Printers Row Journal, the Tribune’s weekly literary supplement. Three finalists will receive awards of $1,000 each, and four runners-up will receive $500 each. The deadline is February 1.

United States residents ages eighteen and over are eligible to enter. Using the online submissions system, fiction writers may submit a previously unpublished story, written in English, of up to eight thousand words. There is no entry fee. Winners will be selected by a panel of established fiction writers and announced during the annual Printers Row Lit Fest, which will be held this year on June 8 and 9 in Chicago. 

Given annually for over twenty years, the Nelson Algren Award is named for the iconic Chicago writer best known for his novel The Man With the Golden Arm, which received the inaugural National Book Award in 1949. “Fiction helps us make sense of a world in which horrible things happen,” writes Tribune Literary Editor Elizabeth Taylor on the newspaper’s website. “This is a world that all but defies imagination, where lovers and friends, criminals and victims, enemies and allies, traitors and confidantes engage with each other on the page, and elevate the everyday of life into art. In the Nelson Algren contest, we try to create a perfect world, in which all stories are treated equally.” The contest, which is judged blindly, has published early work from authors such as Louise Erdrich and Julia Glass. Past judges have included late authors George Plimpton, Studs Terkel, and Eudora Welty.  

The winner of the 2012 prize was Jeremy T. Wilson of Chicago for his story “Everything is Going to Be Okay.” For complete eligibility requirements and guidelines for the 2013 contest, visit the Nelson Algren Award rules page.

Peter J. Harris, founder and Artistic Director of Inspiration House, is an African American cultural worker who has since the 1970s published his poetry, essays, and fiction in a wide range of national publications; worked as a publisher, journalist, editor, and broadcaster; and been an educator, and workshop leader for adults and adolescents. Harris is also founding director of The Black Man of Happiness Project, a creative, intellectual, and artistic exploration of Black men and joy. He is a mainstay of the Los Angeles arts community and has been supported by P&W as both a writer and event curator.

Peter J. HarrisWhat are your reading dos?
I choose poetry that feels right for the moment and best captures my artistic voice, as well as the ideas and emotions welling within me as I absorb the atmosphere of the venue.

I try to contribute to the overall harmonics of the event, but prioritize sharing work that resonates with my journey as a human being and focuses the audience’s attention on that journey.

When producing or curating, my essential “do” is to present programs that include virtuosos—poets with vitality and distinctive voices, who are enchanted by the power of well-chosen language.
 
How do you prepare for a reading?
Give thanks for the invitation. I choose work that addresses the theme of the reading and review works-in-progress I'm inspired to revisit, in hopes that my preparations might include sharpened insights and heightened skills to complete the new poem in time.

Over the years, I’ve found that publicly reading freshly minted work is difficult, but exhilarating. I can’t rely on memory or familiarity to take it to the bridge. Reading a new poem makes me nervous, slows me down, quiets the room, and demands that I concentrate on feeling/capturing the nuances of the poem in real time. Under the right circumstances, folks in the audience experience and witness in a positive way the humility of my struggle, and they lean in to listen and join me on the exploration.
 
What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
Honesty. Fearlessness. Conversational, passionate delivery of the poem. Resist the urge to lean on what some folks might call a signature poem.

Place the poems first. The audience is there to hear the work, not to see me, even if I’m the “featured” poet.
 
What’s the inspiration behind the Inspiration House PoetryChoir?
Inspiration House PoetryChoir, a collaboration between a shifting roster of virtuoso poets and improvisational musicians, is my old KPFK radio show stood up on its feet. The radio show, “Inspiration House: VoiceMusic for Whole Living,” aired from 1999 to 2004 on KPFK-FM, Pacifica Radio for Southern California. The show featured poets reading their work to recorded music. Poets selected poetry in response to the music, and I selected music in response to the poetry.

Inspiration House PoetryChoir events unfold in the same unscripted way, with the audience encouraged to respond spontaneously—with shouts of encouragement, amens, and affirmation—to the skill of the poets and musicians, stitching their voices into the dialogue, and helping to produce a testament to whole living.

The Inspiration House PoetryChoir is also a reflection of my thinking that poetry readings can become ceremonies that are mini rites of passages, in which participants begin the experience in one state of mind/being; plunge into the deep exchange between poets sharing their work, while musicians improvise musical responses to the poetry, all of us losing ourselves within the blending of words, intonations, audience responses, and dynamic silence; then leave the gig renewed and recommitted to cultural work that contributes to the creation of a humane society.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs and the role of the writer in the community?
Ideally, literary programs are concentrated opportunities to swap ideas, testimony, and stories that celebrate our uncensored voices. Sometimes they present virtuosos whose mastery sets or expands standards of excellence. Sometimes they are briar patches to intensify the creative and artistic intimacies of writers of a common cultural or stylistic flow. Sometimes they call us to cross borders and be ethical witnesses to the evolution of themes and issues that hip us and humble us, so we’re reminded to stay curious and hungry to learn.

The role of the writer in the community? Scribe. Critic. Griot. Historian. Entertainer. Provocateur. Visionary. Tour-guide to big ideas, insecurities, and private insights that unlock public understandings. Mas o menos!

Photo: Peter J. Harris. Credit: Adenike Harris.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Think about a choice you made in your life that led to specific consequences or outcomes. Explore the alternative reality that could have been if you'd made a different choice in an essay that begins If I hadn't...

Choose one of your favorite classic books and make a brief outline of the plot. Write a story, set in the present, adapted from that classic story, using your outline and the classic book's main character to guide you. For example, write a version of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre set in Los Angeles in 2013. Who would a contemporary Jane be? Under what circumstances would she go to live and work in the home of a widower? If she fell in love with him, what would happen?

Look out your window or observe your surroundings and make a list of ten images. Choose the three that you find most compelling and freewrite about them, exploring any memories or associations they elicit. Put your freewriting exercise aside, and draft a poem that incorporates at least five of the images from your list. 

The finalists for the 2012 Story Prize, an annual book award given for a short story collection published during the previous year, were announced this morning. The winner, who will be chosen in March, will receive twenty thousand dollars.

The 2012 finalists are Dan Chaon for Stay Awake (Ballantine), Junot Díaz for This Is How You Lose Her (Riverhead), and Claire Vaye Watkins for Battleborn (Riverhead). The collections were chosen from ninety-eight submissions, representing sixty-five different publishers.

Dan Chaon is the author of two previous books, including the collection Among the Missing (Ballantine), which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Junot Díaz’s second book, the novel The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead) won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Claire Vaye Watkins has received a Silver Pen Award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame and earned a spot on the National Book Foundation’s  2012 “5 Under 35” list. Battleborn is her debut collection. 

“These are all outstanding short story collections by skillful and accomplished authors, whom we're thrilled to have as finalists for The Story Prize,” wrote Director Larry Dark on the Prize blog.

The judges for this year’s prize include critic and writer Jane Ciabattari, author Yiyun Li, and bookseller Sarah McNally. The winner will be announced on March 13 at an annual award ceremony and reading at the New School in New York City.

Founded in 2004, The Story Prize is dedicated to the short story, a form often overlooked among major literary prizes. The 2011 award went to Steven Millhauser for his collection We Others (Knopf). 

The finalists for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced today. Of the thirty finalists, one winner in each of the six categories will be selected this February to receive the prestigious literary prize. 

The finalists in poetry are David Ferry for Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations (University of Chicago Press), Lucia Perillo for On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths (Copper Canyon Press), Allan Peterson for Fragile Acts (McSweeney’s Books), D. A. Powell for Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys (Graywolf Press), and A. E. Stallings for Olives (Triquarterly).

The finalists in fiction are Laurent Binet for HHhH, translated by Sam Taylor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Ben Fountain for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco), Adam Johnson for The Orphan Master’s Son (Random House), Lydia Millet for Magnificence (W. W. Norton), and Zadie Smith for NW (Penguin Press).

The finalists in autobiography are Reyna Grande for The Distance Between Us (Atria Books), Maureen N. McLane for My Poets (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the late Anthony Shadid for House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Leanne Shapton for Swimming Studies (Blue Rider Press), and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o for In the House of the Interpreter (Pantheon).

For a complete list of finalists, including those in the additional categories of general nonfiction, biography, and criticism, and for profiles of each author, visit the National Book Critics Circle Tumblr page or the official blog of the NBCC, Critical Mass.

The National Book Critics Circle Awards—the only national prizes selected by a panel of established literary critics—have been given annually since 1976 for books published in the United States in the previous year. The NBCC also honors one of its member critics with the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, and awards the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for a distinguished author, editor, publisher, or literary institution, each year.

The winners of the 2012 awards will be announced on Thursday, February 28 at a ceremony at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium in New York City. A finalists reading will be held on February 27. 

PW-funded poet Camille Dungy blogs about the daily life of writers and the role Poets & Writers' Readings/Workshops program plays in that life. Dungy is a professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University. She has published three collections of poetry—Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the 2010 Crab Orchard Open Book Prize; Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press); and What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen Press).

Camille DungyLast week I wrote that one of the things writers do all day is answer questions. Is that really all we do? Of course not. Another thing writers do all day is worry about whether we've figured out the best way to answer the questions presented to us.

The simple one-word answer, though efficient at times, won't get us a whole book, or even a whole page. And who ever heard of someone finishing a whole book when they couldn't even fill a page?

Thus, we elaborate. The prominent color in that sunset is no longer just red. It becomes a red that reminds her of the coral ring her sister used to wear on her ring finger after she left North Carolina and her first husband for the job she took in Vermont.

We can go on and on, you see, asking the right questions and elaborating on them. What was the story with the first husband? Why first? How many more? Why Vermont? Can I say more about the ring? What's with the punctuation? Is this the start of a paragraph or a poem? When presented with the right set of questions, a writer can go on all day.

Then, though, comes the next big question: Who really cares about our elaborate responses anyway?

Last week, I wrote that Poets & Writers graciously presents its funded artists with a list of questions they are encouraged to elaborate upon. This is part of the role of the community that supports its writers. The community that supports its writers ought to give them lots of good questions to answer: Describe the event. Why did he open the door? Who is he sitting with? What was the impact of receiving support? If I could figure out really good answers to these questions, I could write a whole book.

But who would read it?

Poets & Writers knows that writers often worry that what they are writing won't reach a receptive ear. They've anticipated this and close their questionnaire with these words: The information provided on this report is integral to the continued success of the Readings/Workshops program and is necessary to ensure continued funding of the program. Poets & Writers thanks you for your help in this regard.

Do you see what I mean? Poets & Writers has figured out how to make the writer understand that her carefully chosen words matter. Someone, somewhere, is waiting on an answer.

I am not making light of this. I understand that it is amazing that Poets & Writers has chosen to use its resources to encourage writers and the artistic programs and community organizations that support writers and their readers. Knowing such an organization exists and understanding all the tangible ways they support the life of letters in this country should quell any worrying writer's fears about writing into a void. There are people out there, and they care about writers' ability to carry on.

Now, all the writer has to do is find the time to write.

Photo: Camille Dungy.  Photo credit: Marcia Wilson/Wide Vision Photography.

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

The Hong Kong-based Man Asian Literary Prize has announced the shortlist for its 2012 prize. Of the five finalists, culled from an original long list of fifteen, one winner will receive an award of thirty thousand dollars.  

The shortlisted finalists include: Musharraf Ali Farooqi of Pakistan for Between Clay and Dust (Aleph), Hiromi Kawakami of Japan for The Briefcase (Counterpoint Press), Orhan Pamuk of Turkey for Silent House (Knopf), Tan Twan Eng of Malaysia for The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books), and Jeet Thayil of India for Narcopolis (Faber and Faber).

The chair of judges, international journalist and cultural critic Maya Jaggi, selected the shortlist along with her fellow judges, Vietnamese American novelist Monique Truong and Indian novelist Vikram Chandra. The winner will be announced on March 14 at the prize ceremony in Hong Kong.

The international award is given annually for a novel by an Asian writer, written in or translated into English and published during the previous year. For more information, visit the Man Asian Literary Prize online.

In the video below, David Parker, executive director of the prize, announces the shortlist, and Maya Jaggi is interviewed about the final five selections.

Choose a topic with currency that you feel personally connected to and want to explore through writing. Research statistics, facts, and events related to it. Weave these with personal anecdotes that are also related. For example, if the topic is gun control, write an essay that combines statistics about how many people own guns in the United States, factual stories about incidents of gun violence, and personal anecdotes about how you learned to hunt growing up. Strive to explore the complexity of the topic.

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