Up in the Air: Beth Lisick on Stage-Diving and Snap Decisions

P&W–supported writer Beth Lisick is the author of five books, including the New York Times bestseller Everybody Into the Pool (Regan Books/Harper Collins) and, most recently, Yokohama Threeway and Other Small Shames (City Lights Publishers). This spring, Lisick will be part of the P&W–supported Sister Spit tour with RADAR Productions. She lives in Brooklyn.

Beth LisickWhat are your reading do's?
I always think about the type of event at which I’ll be reading and try to pick something I think will work in that venue. Is it a solo reading, group reading, cabaret-style show? Stuff like that. I mean, your work is your work and you only have so much to choose from, but I always think about it from an audience’s perspective (which I don’t do while I’m writing.) And sometimes I know I’ll give a better reading if it’s something I haven’t read out loud a bunch of times. I hate a canned reading.

And your reading don’ts?
Don’t ever, ever, ever, go on too long. The longest I will ever read is twenty minutes, but usually it’s more like fifteen with a Q&A or else some other dumb, surprise element I come up with.

How do you prepare for a reading?
I never over-prepare. I’ve learned not to get drunk or anything beforehand, but I also like to leave it open and see what it feels like once I get there. Some people are going to feel better if they’re totally prepared, but my favorite readings have always been when I leave a few things up in the air until the last minute.

What’s the strangest comment you’ve received from an audience member?
If bottles of gin are a “comment,” then that. If not, then “I worked with your dad at Lockheed Missiles and Spaces in 1978” was pretty good.

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
I don’t know that I have a crowd-pleaser. In between the poems or stories I’m reading, I try to be myself, be the person I am with my friends and my family. That always helps.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve been part of?
I’ve been doing this for twenty years so a lot of shit has happened. I got booed by a very vociferous crowd when I opened for Neil Young. I’ve stage-dived and had my shirt torn off. I’ve made lifelong friends with people I’ve met at readings. I’ve completely had what felt like an aneurysm and forgotten what I was doing. I’ve been heckled by lesbians who were mad that I was a straight person on tour with lesbians. I’ve looked out in the audience and realized that there was somebody out there that I’d rather not have hear what I’m about to read and chickened out and changed at the last minute. And sometimes I’ve said fuck it and read it anyway.

How does giving a reading inform your writing and vice versa?
Reading out loud used to completely inform my writing because open mics were how I started writing in the first place. Over time that has changed, but I still read my stuff out loud to myself after I’ve written something. I want it to sound good. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t, but my favorite stuff always ends up being the stuff that sounds really killer and dynamic when it’s read out loud.

Photo: Beth Lisick. Credit: Amy Sullivan.

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

Music Lessons

3.20.14

Amy Tan’s story “Two Kinds” follows a young girl who is pushed to become a musical prodigy but ultimately fails to excel. This week, consider your own history with music lessons. Did your family or school persuade you to learn to play an instrument? Did you get to choose your instrument or was it chosen for you? Did you teach yourself to play an instrument later in life? If you have never played an instrument, write about another activity you picked up (or were forced to pick up) during childhood.

Frank Bidart, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Win National Book Critics Circle Awards

Last night, during a ceremony at the New School in New York City, the National Book Critics Circle announced the winners of its book awards for publishing year 2013.

Frank Bidart won in poetry for Metaphysical Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won in fiction for Americanah (Knopf); and Sheri Fink won in nonfiction for Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital (Crown).

Amy Wilentz won the autobiography award for Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti (Simon & Schuster); Leo Damrosch won the biography award for Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World (Yale University Press); and Franco Moretti won the criticism award for Distant Reading (Verso).

The winners were chosen by a panel of established literary critics from a list of thirty finalists announced in January. The shortlist in poetry included Lucie Brock-Broido for Stay, Illusion (Knopf); Denise Duhamel for Blowout (University of Pittsburgh Press); Bob Hicok for Elegy Owed (Copper Canyon Press); and Carmen Gimenez Smith for Milk and Filth (University of Arizona Press). The finalists in fiction were Alice McDermott for Someone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Javier Marias for The Infatuations (Knopf); Ruth Ozeki for A Tale for the Time Being (Viking); and Donna Tartt for The Goldfinch (Little, Brown). The finalists in nonfiction were Kevin Cullen and Shelly Murphy for Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice (Norton); David Finkel for Thank You for Your Service (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); George Packer for The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); and Lawrence Wright for Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (Knopf).

Anthony Marra won the inaugural John Leonard Prize, which honors a first book in any genre, for his novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth). Critic Katherine A. Powers won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing award, and fiction writer, essayist, and translator Rolando Hinojosa-Smith won the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.

The National Book Critics Circle awards are given annually for books published in the previous year. For more information about the awards, visit the NBCC website or its literary blog, Critical Mass.

In the video below from Britain's Channel 4 News, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses race, love, hair, and Americanah.

Photographs

3.13.14

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes describes the punctum as “that rare detail” in a photograph that strikes the viewer. This week, look through old photographs for a detail that captivates your attention. Write about this detail. Why does it draw you in?

Commuting

This week write about your experience commuting to work. Whether it's the hour-long drive, daily bus route, or your morning walk, try to think about routines you have developed over the years to make your commute productive or enjoyable. If you work from home, you can write about what it's like not having to commute, and how you turn your home environment into a work environment.

L.A. Times Book Prize Finalists Announced

The finalists for the thirty-fourth annual Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, which are awarded in ten categories, were announced last week.

The finalists in poetry are Joshua Beckman for The Inside of an Apple (Wave Books), Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge for Hello, the Roses (New Directions), Ron Padgett for Collected Poems (Coffee House Press), Elizabeth Robinson for On Ghosts (Solid Objects), and Lynn Xu for Debts & Lessons (Omnidawn).

The finalists in fiction are Percival Everett for Percival Everett by Virgil Russell (Graywolf Press), Claire Messud for The Woman Upstairs (Knopf), Ruth Ozeki for A Tale for the Time Being (Viking), Susan Steinberg for Spectacle: Stories (Graywolf Press), and Daniel Woodrell for The Maid’s Version: A Novel (Little, Brown).

The finalists for the Art Seidanbaum Award for First Fiction are NoViolet Bulawayo for We Need New Names (Reagan Arthur Books), Jeff Jackson for Mira Corpora (Two Dollar Radio), Fiona McFarlane for The Night Guest (Faber & Faber), Jamie Quatro for I Want to Show You More (Grove Press), and Ethan Rutherford for The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories (Ecco).

Fiction writer Susan Straight will receive the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement. Straight is the author of eight novels, most recently Between Heaven and Here (McSweeney’s, 2012). Straight writes about Rio Seco, a fictional town inspired by Riverside, California, where she currently resides.

The winners will be announced during an award ceremony on April 11 at the University of Southern California. The event is open to the public, and tickets will go on sale for $10 on March 17. For more information on the event, and a list of finalists in the additional categories of biography, current interest, graphic novel/comics, history, mystery/thriller, science and technology, and young adult literature, visit the L.A. Times Book Prizes website.

In the video below from TEDx Redondo Beach, Susan Straight talks about why she became a writer.

Recipe for Writing

2.27.14

Recipes can help bridge generations, reveal unexpected characteristics of a culture, or simply fill an afternoon. Write about a time you had to follow a recipe, whether it was familiar or foreign to you. What was the context? Did you patiently follow the steps or rush through the instructions? Did you improvise? How did the meal turn out?

Literary Journeys in California's Inland Empire With Cati Porter

Cati Porter is a poet, editor, and community arts facilitator. She is the author of Seven Floors Up (Mayapple Press, 2008), as well as several chapbooks, most recently The Way Things Move The Dark (dancing girl press, 2013). Her work is included in the anthologies Women Write Resistance, White Ink, Letters to the World, and Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel–Second Floor. The recipient of poetry awards from So To Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art, Crab Creek Review, and Gravity & Light, she is founder and editor of the online journals Poemeleon: A Journal of Poetry and Inlandia: A Literary Journey. She is executive director of the Inlandia Institute. For many years, P&W has supported Porter's events as both a poet and presenter.

Cati PorterWhat makes your organization and its programs unique?
Based in Riverside, California, and beginning in partnership with the City of Riverside and Heyday Books, the Inlandia Institute as a regionally focused independent literary nonprofit is unique. Of course, we do everything that you might expect: We publish books, host author events and book signings, and offer writing workshops and other related programs. What it is that sets us apart is our dedication to Inland Southern California, defined as much by the people as by the geography, and the broad range of programs that we offer.

In addition to literature and literacy, we also take on cultural and environmental projects that are of significance to our region. One example of this is Women Making Waves. This project recorded the oral histories of women activists who were integral to the preservation of our region’s open spaces, like Sycamore Canyon Park and Santa Rosa Plateau. The project was later integrated into our website as an interactive permanent exhibit and resource. Another is an upcoming publication of memoirs centered around the burning of Lowell School and the subsequent desegregation of the Riverside Unified School District, the first large school district to voluntarily do so, and which will include interviews with former Lowell students, community leaders, and others who had insight into that tumultuous period.

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
We’re proud of all of our programs and projects, but we were thrilled this past fall when Inlandia had the opportunity to partner with Poets & Writers to present Sal y Muerte, a day-long workshop and reading project held at the Salton Sea—such a heartbreakingly beautiful and desolate location, but completely ripe for creating art. The project included workshops in poetry and prose with Sandra Alcosser, Brandon Cesmat, and desert natives and inveterate Inlandians Maureen Alsop and Ruth Nolan. The workshops culminated in a reading by campfire accompanied by Cesmat’s guitar. This is the sort of workshop that embodies what Inlandia is all about—bringing people together where language and landscape intersect.

And I would be remiss to not mention that we are also extremely proud of our new Inlandia Literary Journeys project, in partnership with the Riverside Press–Enterprise. ILJ includes a weekly literary column, video interview series, and affiliated blog.

How has literary presenting informed your own writing and/or life?
The first literary event I ever hosted—eight years ago, back in 2006—I was petrified. Above all, I am a writer, and I have an affinity for hiding behind a monitor or a book. But now, through the Inlandia Institute, I host events on average of once per week, so while I do still get butterflies, it has become much easier. I admit that I began presenting literary events out of the largely selfish motivation of wanting to attend more readings closer to home. It has enriched my own sense of what is possible, both in literature and life.
 
What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
I have watched as the Inlandia Institute has built a solid community of creative thinkers, writers, and readers, rising up out of common interests—in this case, language, self-expression, and an appreciation for this place that we call home. In the last few years, other groups have risen up here too—I'm thinking specifically of PoetrIE and the Wild Lemon Project, whose missions are similar to our own. Organizations like these and the cadre of literary-minded folks that run them are what help to forge this region’s literary identity and put it on the map, so to speak. Literary programs encourage engagement with our humanity and with other human beings, something as necessary as air, but not necessarily as easy to come by. The Inlandia Institute is helping to change that.

Photo: Cati Porter at an event at Cellar Door Books. Credit: Matt Nadelson.

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

Moving

2.20.14

We’ve all had to pack our belongings into boxes at some point. People move for their jobs, partners, or just to experience a change. This week, reflect on your past moves. Which was your best moving day and which was your worst? What obstacles and challenges (both logistical and psychological) have you faced while moving? What did you learn from the experience?

Vela Magazine Launches Nonfiction Contest for Women

Vela Magazine, an online journal that publishes works of nonfiction written by women and inspired by travel, has launched its inaugural nonfiction contest for women. The winner will receive $500 and publication. The deadline is March 31; there is no entry fee.  

The editors seek a “strong voice, a compelling narrative, and/or a powerful driving question. We’re interested in a wide range of essays and stories, including literary journalism, personal essays, memoir, and expository or experimental essays.”

Women writers may submit a previously unpublished essay of up to 6,500 words along with a cover letter via the online submission system. While there is no entry fee, donations to the magazine are accepted with submissions; those who donate will receive a PDF titled Women We Read This Year, an annotated compilation of writing by women from 2013, drawn from the magazine’s weekly Women We Read This Week column.

In addition to the winner, two finalists will also have their work published.  All entries will be considered for publication.

Michelle Orange, the author of the essay collection This Is Run­ning For Your Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), will judge.

Vela Magazine was founded in 2011 by nonfiction writer Sarah Menkedick in response to the gender disparity in publishing, which is tracked each year through VIDA’s annual count. “As long as [this disparity] continues to be the case,” Menkedick writes in the magazine’s manifesto, “then I believe in creating a separate space in which women can write what they want to write, with the same intellectual freedom as men; without a major overhaul of self and world views.”

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