The Next Big Thing

So apparently there’s this fun writer’s game going around called “The Next Big Thing.” Or maybe it’s a writer/reader/blogger game. Or maybe it’s not a game? I’m not sure. I think I’ll call it a doohickey. There’s this cool doohickey in which I got tagged by the fabulous Adriana Paramo, author of Looking for Esperanza. I get to answer questions about my own book, and to tag five brilliant writer friends who I think are “The Next Big Thing.” Though in my more metaphorical book, these writers are ALREADY “Big Things,” if by that we mean they’re talented, generous, large-spirited people who have written books you absolutely must read.
Those people are:
Ira Sukrungruang, author of the memoir Talk Thai: TheAdventures of Buddhist Boy and the forthcoming poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night, as well as editor of two anthologies, funny boy and, incidentally, married to me
Rosalynde Vas Dias, author of the poetry collection Only Blue Body
Jeff Newberry, author of the poetry collection Brackish
Shane Seely, author of the poetry collection The Snowbound House
Catherine Pierce, author of the poetry collections Famous Last Words and The Girls of Peculiar
What is the title of your book?
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Oh. This one is too hard. I’m going to just copy a sentence from the amazon.com description: “The poems in WHAT THE MOUTH WAS MADE FOR seek to fill up the spaces created by loss and desire with images of open fields, of green, of kisses.”
What genre does your book fall under?
Poetry.  (If I were more confident, I’d say “bad-ass-read-out-loud-to-whoever-you’re-with-at-that-moment poetry.”)
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I wrote a poem more than ten years ago about my first kiss. It was what I thought then was a double sestina—two sestinas using the same repeated end-words. The poem ultimately didn’t work, though I liked some of it very much. My favorite line was, “This is what the mouth was made for: apple, word, kiss.” I never could let go of that poem, partly because that boy lost his grandfather in a horrific house fire right around the time of that first kiss, and I remember looking at the terrible burn scar on his hand and wondering how someone could survive something like that. And yet we have to eat, and somehow find words for things, and there are those absolute miracles we call kisses. Anyway, my books of poetry (so far) aren’t “about” one particular thing—I write poems and then figure out how they go together—but these poems coalesced around loss and longing and sensuality, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to revisit that poem.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
For me, it was very quick! I wrote a ton of poems after my first book came out, just about one per week, because I had a wonderful poet friend, Michael Hettich, who basically demanded that we exchange poems that often. I admired his work so much, I couldn’t ever bring myself to email that I didn’t have anything to send. I also scooped up some poems that didn’t fit in the first book, which of course extends the time. But it came together in about two years.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Inspiration. Well, I write poems because I can’t notwrite them. I know that’s become a writer’s cliché, but it’s true. It’s not that writing is easy—it’s hard, because being vulnerable on the page is hard. In that way, a huge inspiration for me is my students and former students, writers who keep putting themselves on the page despite everything the culture is telling them. Reminding them that they matter—and their voices matter—buoys me enough that I sometimes believe I matter. Of course, I’m also kiss-obsessed, mouth-obsessed, as the book reveals. So anyone I’ve ever wanted to kiss definitely counts as inspiration!
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It’s published by FutureCycle Press, an independent press that’s taking advantage of new technologies, trying to connect readers with work that can move them. FutureCycle uses print-on-demand technology, so they don’t have to deal with book storage or “out of print” problems, and they make all their titles available on Kindle as well. Unlike many poetry presses, it’s not affiliated with a university. I’m happy to be with them, because they make the process fun (I get to help pick out the cover art) and, most important, they took a chance on me, publishing my first book. I had been sending out some version of a first poetry book for 18 years by the time Castaway was published. I’m still not sure this second book is real.
What other works would you compare this book to within your genre?
Not an easy question! All comparisons to the poetry of other poets I love seem self-aggrandizing, because those poets are so very talented. How about I just list some poets I love instead? James Wright, Nin Andrews, Tim Seibles, Ellen Bass, James Galvin, Laura Kasischke, Terrance Hayes, Judith Barrington…
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
I got the sweetest compliment from two women in two very different circumstances: both compared me to Anne Hathaway. So I suppose that’s who would play me. As for the various men I kiss or imagine kissing: it’s got to be Colin Firth. I know, the ages are wrong for those two, but he’s my biggest, longest-standing celebrity crush. I even had a poem with his name in the title in my first book.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Love, sex, kisses. What more do you want?

Poetry, luck, and success

Yesterday after my intermediate poetry writing class, a student had a hard question for me. “You don’t have to answer this,” she said, “but I hope you do. So do you ever regret going into the field you’re in, being a poetry teacher?”

“Well,” I said, trying not to hesitate too much, raw from a recent career-related rejection and in the midst of trying to come to terms with this very issue myself. I took a breath. “Well, I dropped out of law school to do this.”

She nodded. “Yes, I remember you said that.”

I looked at her. I knew she came from the kind of family that considered college a vehicle to making a good living. I knew she’d struggled with the decision to major in creative writing, and she’d been shocked when I suggested she was talented and might consider graduate school. Finally I said, “I believe ‘success’ in pretty much any career is mostly a matter of luck. Let me put it this way: if I’d put all the same hours into being a lawyer that I’ve put into writing and teaching, and then had bad or mediocre luck, I’d be not only depressed about my lack of success but sorry I spent all those hours on something I didn’t love. As it is, I’ve had bad and mediocre luck in my own field, and at least I can say that I don’t regret all that time spent on writing and teaching.”

She let out a breath she’d been holding. “Because I find myself writing poems all the time–when I’m driving, at work, standing in line, cleaning the kitchen. I’m always having ideas for poems!”

I smiled and told her this was a wonderful thing. I really, really believe it is.

I’m still sorting through my feelings and thoughts here. I want to write a longer essay, interrogating the definitions of “success” and admitting to my own jealousy, self-disgust and despair, my own snobbery, the disappointments and the triumphs and the pettiness of making writing/academia one’s career. For now, though, I can say this: students like this one save my life, every day, because I never question whether responding to them is worthwhile. And despite all my own stupidity and mistakes, having something I do that is absolutely worthwhile, that matters–well, that’s enough to give all my choices some kind of meaning.

"Always with Whitman" by Kathryn Kopple

I came across this poem today, and loved it so much I had to share. As one of my other friends recently said to me, “Whitman is my prophet.”

ALWAYS WITH WHITMAN

I read his poems and no longer care who I might be.

If I am a woman let him imagine my skirt bright as a yellow awning,

a canopy generous and swaying over supple hips,

or let him imagine that I am a man and he lies awake in bed with me

under a roof of polished beams,

the flicker of the lamplight repeating in the windows.

And always I feel him close, his diction and intonation.

each syllable a chime struck against distress and absence,

each cadence an ointment, a balm to soften resentment,

and deposit on my lips some earthy souvenir,

the ash that lingers on the tongue,

the nectar that washes it clean.

–Kathryn Kopple

poem first published in Volume 1, Number 1 of The Hummingbird Review

on "confessionalism" in memoir and more

I’ve read many intelligent articles on the issue of “confessionalism,” pieces that critique it and pieces that defend it. What’s fascinating to me about this article in particular is that the author links confessionalism in memoir with the same impulse in poetry and other genres of writing. Some articles lament the “memoir culture” we live in now, but this one speaks practically about it, from a writer’s perspective. Where do I stand? Personally, I think a lot of great work comes from being vulnerable on the page. I love reading and writing memoir; the speaker in my poems is always basically me. I think it takes courage to write about one’s personal struggles, and I applaud that courage. I don’t think everyone absolutely mustwrite this kind of work—there’s so much wonderful space for many kinds of powerful and gorgeous writing—but I’m a fan of it. Anyway, read this article by Susan Shapiro. Here’s a quote from it:
“The Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Robert Lowell, who was known for his stark confessions, once wrote: ‘I am tired. Everyone’s tired of my turmoil.’
Not really. Decades after his death I’m still reading — and quoting — him.”

USF Students Publish!

1/15/13 update
Read Victor Florence’s poems in Northwind!

1/10/13 late night update
Read Christina Lutz’s wonderful poem in Anderbo!

1/10/13 update
Kim Karalius’ short story “The Lost Detective” appears in Stone Thread Publishing’s second speculative fiction anthology, titled Things You Can Create. Get your copy now!

1/5/13 update
Read Sara Walters’ creative nonfiction piece in Embodied Effigies.

1/2/13
Because this will happen again and again–University of South Florida students and former students publishing their brilliant creative work–my plan is to simply update this entry as things happen.

For now, let’s kick off the 2013 celebration of talent with Ryan Bollenbach’s poem in Rose Red Review!

Oh, and after seeing the kudos Adriana Parama is getting for her book Looking for Esperanza, you’ll definitely want to read it.