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Write a scene in which two very different characters—an old man and a young woman, for example—are having an argument. Then rewrite the scene so that each character makes the argument the other character was making in the previous draft. Pay close attention to what is revealed about the characters in each draft.

While the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Awards shortlists, announced last weekend, have echoes of last fall's National Book Awards, the nominees in fiction were a completely fresh batch. Receiving nods for this year's prize in fiction are A Visit From the Goon Squad (Knopf) by Jennifer Egan, Freedom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Jonathan Franzen, To the End of the Land (Knopf) by David Grossman, Comedy in a Minor Key (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Hans Keilson, and Skippy Dies (Faber and Faber) by Paul Murray.

National Book Award winners Terrance Hayes (Lighthead, Penguin) and Patti Smith (Just Kids, Ecco) are up for the prizes in poetry and autobiography, respectively. Also called out are National Book Award–nominated poets Kathleen Graber for The Eternal City (Princeton University Press) and C. D. Wright for One With Others (Copper Canyon), as well as Anne Carson for Nox (New Directions) and U.S. poet laureate Kay Ryan for The Best of It (Grove Press).

In the memoir category, Smith’s book is up against Half a Life (McSweeney's Books) by Darin Strauss, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate (Scribner) by Kai Bird, Autobiography of an Execution (Hachette) by David Dow, Hitch-22 (Twelve) by Christopher Hitchens, and Hiroshima in the Morning (Feminist Press) by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto.

The judging committees of the NBCC will have their say this spring, but while awaiting word of the winners on March 10, here’s a look at what some critics thought of this year's notable titles before they were finalists.

"Nox is a luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of an elegy." Meghan O’Rourke on Carson’s poetry collection, New Yorker

"If you only read one book of poetry this year, that’s not enough, but start with this one.” Craig Morgan Teicher on Graber’s The Eternal City, Publishers Weekly

"Talking to the reader as if she were sitting next to him on a bar stool, Hayes makes poems that flatter our subtlety and make unfussy the business of turning on the imagination's light." John Freeman on Lighthead, Dallas Morning News

"Turning each corner of a Ryan poem, the eye drops to the next solid, well-planked surface." John Freeman on The Best of It, Los Angeles Times

"One With Others is potent because it is alive with voices, alive with suffering, alive with a language which earmarks an era, but also a message which seeks to persist. It is also alive with an ideology of hatred that still courses through the United States today.” Steven Karl on Wright’s poetry collection, Coldfront

"For a book so relentlessly savvy about the digital age and its effect on how we experience time (speeded up, herky-jerky, instantaneous, but also full of unbearable gaps and pauses), A Visit From the Goon Squad is remarkably old-fashioned in its obsession with time’s effects on characters, that preoccupation of those doorstop nineteenth-century novels." Will Blythe on Egan’s novel, New York Times Book Review

"Some of Freedom’s sentences are so well-written you want to pluck them out, stab them with little corn holders, and eat them." Sam Anderson on Franzen's novel, New York Magazine

"Why was Freedom written?" B. R. Myers also weighs in, The Atlantic

"Grossman invites us to look beneath the shrill headlines, beyond the roadblocks, within the clenched fist — to see Israel’s predicament not as 'the situation' but as many situations, one for every person.” Donna Rifkind on To the End of the Land, Kansas City Star

"Keilson treats his characters tenderly, sympathizing with their difficulties and forgiving them their mistakes…. Keilson's work as a psychoanalyst displays an empathy and a sensitivity to suffering that are surely the equal—if not arguably the superior—of any of which a novelist is capable." Dan Vitale on Comedy in a Minor Key, which was originally published in German in 1947 (in a review that also covers Keilson’s Death of the Adversary), Three Percent

"One of Murray's achievements is to evoke the mournfully short-lived nature of adolescent forevers." Richard Eder on Skippy Dies, Los Angeles Times

"Dow’s candor seems so absolute that readers on both sides of the [death penalty] debate
can gain insight into the thought process of an experienced advocate.
His prose is captivating." Steve Weinberg on Autobiography of an Execution, Christian Science Monitor

"Hitchens’s political writing radiates anger and toughness, but his stories of his loved ones are remarkably sensitive and emotionally real.” Michael Schaub on Hitch 22, National Public Radio

"Hiroshima in the Morning is a deeply affecting record of the author’s exploration of story and memory, and an intriguing addition to existing 9/11-related books.” J. G. Stinson on Rizzuto’s memoir, ForeWord Reviews

"Just Kids is the most spellbinding and diverting portrait of
funky-but-chic New York in the late sixties and early seventies that any alumnus has committed to print." Tom Carson on Smith's memoir, New York Times Book Review

"What is truly exceptional here is watching a writer of fine fiction…probe, directly, carefully and with great humility, the source from which his fiction springs." Dani Shapiro on Strauss’s Half a Life, New York Times Book Review

Today the widow of T. S. Eliot awarded the annual prize given to honor a poetry book published in the previous year. Eighty-one-year-old Derek Walcott received the fifteen-thousand-pound prize for White Egrets (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

The Nobel laureate, who was compared last year to Eliot in the New York Times Book Review, was accompanied on the shortlist by Simon Armitage, nominated for Seeing Stars (Faber); Annie Freud for The Mirabelles (Picador); John Haynes for You (Seren); fellow Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney for Human Chain (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Pascale Petit for What the Water Gave Me (Seren); Robin Robertson for The Wrecking Light (Mariner Books); Fiona Sampson for Rough Music (Carcanet Press); Brian Turner for Phantom Noise (Alice James Books); and Sam Willetts for New Light for the Old Dark (Jonathan Cape).

"More than almost any other contemporary poet, Derek Walcott might seem to be fulfilling T. S. Eliot’s program for poetry," poet Karl Kirchwey writes in his NYTBR review of White Egrets last April. "He has distinguished himself in all of what Eliot described as the 'three voices of poetry': the lyric, the narrative or epic, and the dramatic."

The judges expressed similar sentiments. "It took us not very long to decide that this collection was the yardstick by which all the others were to be measured," said chair of judges Anne Stevenson, whose was joined by Bernardine Evaristo and Michael Symmons Roberts. "These are beautiful lines; beautiful poetry."

Make a list of objects. One thing should be from your desk, one from your closet, one a body part, one a thing you covet that belongs to someone else, one enormous, one slippery, and at least one that makes an odd or evocative sound. Now, describe each using a simile. Do this twice for each one. Using as many of the similes as you can, write a poem with a title such as “Checklist to Survive a Nuclear Winter” or “Things That Have Nothing To Do With Grief.”

Small literary press New Issues Poetry and Prose, operating out of the Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, has announced the winner of its twelfth annual Green Rose Prize. Texas poet Corey Marks received the two-thousand-dollar prize, given for a manuscript by a poet who has published at least one poetry collection, for "The Radio Tree," which New Issues will publish in the spring of 2012.

The book will be Marks's second poetry collection, following Renunciation, which won the National Poetry Series Open Competition and was published by University of Illinois Press in 2000. Marks, who directs the creative writing program at the University of North Texas, holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of Houston and earned his MFA from Warren Wilson College's low-residency program.

Previous winners include Noah Eli Gordon (chapbook reviewer for Rain Taxi) for A Fiddle Pulled From the Throat of a Sparrow, Joan Houlihan (director of the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference) for The Mending Worm, and Martha Rhodes (publisher of Four Way Books) for Perfect Disappearance.

New Issues also accepted runner-up Hadara Bar-Nadav's manuscript "The Frame Called Ruin" for publication in the fall of 2012. Bar-Nadav is the author of the collection A Glass of Milk to Kiss Goodnight (Margie/IntuiT House, 2007) and the chapbook The Soft Arcade (Cinematheque Press, 2010).

Write a story about the worst moment of your life (such as a loss or a betrayal) as though it happened to someone else. Instead of focusing on the moment itself, set the story the day before it happened and create a character very different from you to stand in for yourself. Write the story using a third-person omniscient narrator to exploit the tension between the reader’s knowledge of what’s to come and the protagonist’s complete lack of awareness of what’s to come. Consider ending the story before the impending doom arrives.

The International Jerusalem Book Fair has announced the twenty-fifth winner of the ten-thousand-dollar Jerusalem Prize, given biennially since 1963. Novelist and short story writer Ian McEwan will be given the award honoring "freedom of the individual in society" at the festival this February.

"McEwan’s protagonists struggle for their right to give personal expression to their ideas and to live according to those ideas in an environment of political and social turmoil," the prize jury said in a statement. "His obvious affection for them, and the compelling manner in which he describes their struggle, make him one of the most important writers of our time. His books have been translated into many languages and have enjoyed world-wide success—particularly in Israel, where he is one of the most widely-read of foreign authors."

McEwan, who lives in London, joins previous honorees—all male with the exception of Simone de Beauvoir and Susan Sontag—including Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Haruki Murakami. Author of the Booker Prize–winning novels On Chesil Beach (Nan A. Talese, 2007) and Amsterdam (Nan A. Talese, 1999), his most recent novel is Solar (Nan A. Talese, 2010).

In the video below, McEwan discusses his latest work.

What is something you are afraid to write about in your own poems, either because it is too personal, or because you feel it is cliché? Create a character—a swarthy bum, a baker, a dog—and write a narrative poem in which your character addresses this topic. Let the fact that the poem isn’t really about you be freeing.

Memorious, the six-year-old online literary journal, is open for poetry entries to its annual art song contest. One poet will have her work set to music by composer Luke Gullickson and performed at an event in Chicago, cosponsored by local group Singers on New Ground (SONG). The winning poem, along with a recording of the musical adaptation, will also be published in Memorious.

"The last quarter-century has seen an explosion of American composers writing art songs for our own time and nation," writes SONG director Eric Malmquist in an introduction to the genre of the art song—technically a poem set to music for voice and piano. "Composers are still setting poetry to music, but many are also setting non-poetic works, including newspaper columns, recipes, listings from 'missed connections' on Craigslist, and crazed writings found on a Chicago bus."

Inspired? Poets can submit via e-mail three to six poems, each of no more than thirty lines, or one long poem of no more than one hundred lines along with a brief bio (there is no entry fee). The deadline is February 12.

For more about the project, entry guidelines, and an audio-visual experience of the winning poem from last year—"Blackwater" by Jill McDonough with musical composition by Randall West—visit the Memorious blog.

Choose three people who you know well and write a detailed character description of each one. Now change the gender, name, and a few physical traits of each one. Begin a story with all three characters standing in the rain outside of a house on fire.

The keepers of Robert Frost's family farm in Derry, New Hampshire, where the poet lived from 1900 to 1911, have opened their inaugural formal poetry contest. Sponsored by the trustees of the Robert Frost Farm and the Hyla Brook Poets, a workshop group that holds a reading series at the historic site, the competition is calling for poems written in meter—any metrical form is welcome.

One winner will receive one thousand dollars and an invitation to read in the Hyla Brook series at the Frost Farm, a program that has hosted poets such as Maxine Kumin, Rhina Espaillat, and Wesley McNair. Serving as judge will be William Baer, former editor of the no-longer-published poetry journal the Formalist.

The entry fee is five dollars a poem, and writers may submit as many works as they like—via snail mail—by April 1. Complete guidelines are posted on the Robert Frost Farm Web site.

In the video below, a short film by Doug Williams interprets Frost's poem "Into My Own," originally published as "Into Mine Own" in New England Magazine during the time Frost lived at the Derry farm, in 1909.

The Story Prize announced today the shortlist for its seventh annual award, an honor worth twenty thousand dollars. The finalists are Anthony Doerr for his fourth book, Memory Wall (Scribner); Yiyun Li for her third book, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (Random House); and Suzanne Rivecca for her debut, Death Is Not an Option (Norton), all of whom have received support from multiple sources that has bolstered their writing.

Doerr, author of the short story collection The Shell Collector, the novel About Grace, and the memoir Four Seasons in Rome, is a recipient of fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He also received the New York Public Library's Young Lions Award in 2003 for The Shell Collector.

Li, who received the MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship last September, is also recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award. From abroad, she has been recognized by the Munster Literature Centre with its Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and by the Guardian, with its First Book Award, for A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. She is also the author of The Vagrants, a novel.

Currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Boston, Rivecca has also received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and spent time as a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University.

John Freeman, editor of Granta; author Jayne Anne Phillips; and Marie du Vaure, book buyer for California's Vroman's Bookstore will select the winner to be announced live on March 2 at an event (open to the ticket-holding public) in New York City. The runners up will each receive five thousand dollars.

In the video below, Doerr discusses how his grandmother influenced his latest book, radio days, and the best time to write.

Write an erasure poem: Rip out one or two pages from a magazine or newspaper. Read through them, underlining words and phrases that appeal to you and that relate to each other. Using a marker or Wite-Out, begin to delete the words around those you underlined, leaving words and phrases that you might want to use. Keep deleting the extra language, working to construct poetic lines with the words you’ve chosen to keep.

The Center for Fiction is currently accepting applications for a new grant and residency program designed for emerging fiction writers who reside in the five boroughs of New York City. Housed in a 1930s-era building in midtown Manhattan, the organization is offering eight fellowship awards of three thousand dollars each and one year of time to write in its writing studio (beginning on May 15) to non-student writers who have not published and are not under contract to publish a book.

In the studio, accessible seven days a week at all hours, each writing fellow is afforded a desk with the requisite outlets, Wi-Fi capability, and access to a wireless printer, as well as a locker. Writers can also make use of a reference library, lounge area, and kitchenette. The fellows will also be offered a mentorship with a freelance editor, a chance to participate in two readings, and free admission to the center's events and lectures.

Applications, which must be e-mailed, are due on January 31 and should contain a resumé, a work sample of up to ten thousand words, and proof of residency. Full guidelines are posted on the Center for Fiction Web site.

Writing with a specific reader in mind helps clarify a writer's voice—we all know how to tell stories to our friends, and we all intuitively understand the points and details of the story that will interest them the most. Borrowing Jack Kerouac's method from On the Road, write a fictional story in the form of a long letter to a friend. Choose someone you know well, but also be sure to choose a person who has no knowledge of the setting or plot of your story (so you don't take any details for granted).

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